Well hello, motherfuckers. How're you all doing on this fine New Year's Eve? What? Who am I? You don't remember me? Ah well, I guess I can't blame you. It has been a year and a goddamn half.

Yeah, I ain't dead, bitches. Which, considering all that's happened to me this year, is a bit of a surprise. But you're not here for an update on my life, are you? Nah, you're here for a different kind of update. One I'm sure many of you thought would never come. But it's here. Your eyes do not deceive you, you have not entered the Twilight Zone; you are indeed looking at the next chapter of Black Flames Dance In The Wind.

But if you ARE interested in what I get up to in between updates, mosey on over to Devilkeys' Playground for…somewhat frequent posts about what's going on. You can also drop by the Black Flames Suggestion Box to propose ideas, ask questions about the story, or tell me that I need to seek professional help for my plethora of apparent fetishes and issues. Whatever floats your boat.

If you don't care about any of the shit up here, feel free to skip down to the good stuff below. But there are some things I feel I need to say, so here goes.

First off, let me thank you all for your patience. Second, I regret to inform you that I have to go back on the guarantee I made last chapter. I said this would be the last pre-Exam Arc chapter, but it's not. That distinction belongs to the NEXT chapter.

See, the plan was for this to be one gigantic mega chapter. I'm talking North of 50k words, which would've made it my largest to date by far, and probably would've been a nightmare to upload. Every scene in this thing has been there MANY different iterations before I settled on what I really liked, and with each rewrite the whole thing grew in size. I kept coming up with new things, and finding opportunities to drop in some more lore, world building and character development. I haven't spent all this time sitting around with my thumb up my ass, that's for sure; I've been working.

But eventually it got so big that I couldn't help but notice that, holy shit, this is a LOT to process! Too much, I believe, for people to handle at one time. There's a lot going on, almost all of it is important in some way, and quite a bit of it doesn't immediately jump out at you. There are subtleties here, things you need to pay attention to and actually think about in order to grasp their true meaning. Or at the very least keep them in mind for the future. I believe a lot of that is wasted when you get these monstrous chapters that are by themselves bigger than some novels. When there's so much going on without breaks in between, you tend to either get overwhelmed by it all, or you stop caring. You just wanna get to the end, so you start skimming, and that's how you miss shit, and then end up leaving me reviews saying "That didn't make sense".

So I had to split the chapter up. I'm probably still in the same boat with this 30k word chapter, but I feel like I need to give you guys something substantial to justify the long wait. Few things annoy me more than one of my favorite stories updating after a long hiatus and it ends up being some piddly little 2000-word POS that's not even worth the click. You won't ever see that from me.

Now fair warning, this chapter, and the one after it, are VERY dialogue-heavy and feature mostly character development and world building. A lot of that is because the Exam Arc will be so frenetic and packed with content that I simply won't have the time to put stuff like this in, in addition to what will already be there. I need to get this stuff out of the way while there's still some downtime and the characters involved don't have better things to do. That said, I've gone out of my way to try and make it all interesting and entertaining, as per usual. Feel free to let me know if I succeeded or not.

That's about it for now. See you guys again down at the bottom!

Get to readin'.

XXXX

(Naruto's Apartment, 8:35am)

A sharp intake of breath signaled Naruto's awakening a split second before his eyes snapped open. It took him a moment to recognize his own ceiling, full of holes from past bouts of boredom. He idly noted that he hadn't put any new holes there in quite a while.

Sitting up in his bed, Naruto checked his watch. He couldn't remember his last time check, though he was sure it was sometime after 2:00am. In fact, he couldn't remember much of anything that happened after he'd left the hospital.

Slowly, things started to come back to him. The overpowering anger and anxiety, and the adrenaline rush that came with it. Pushing his body to bound across rooftops, and more than a few not-so-graceful landings. Trees whizzing by as he ran through the forest, sometimes barely avoiding them due to his severely compromised reaction times. And then blood. So much blood…

Naruto was out of bed and at his bedroom door in less than a second, and would've crashed into Kurohane had he not managed to grab the door frame at the very last moment.

"Whoa!" the pale beauty gave a startled yelp. "Where's the fire?" she immediately winced at her choice of words.

"Anko. What happened to Anko?!" Naruto asked, his voice actually cracking in his borderline panic.

"Calm down, Naruto-kun." Kurohane said as she took hold of his arms and "guided" him back into the room, easily overpowering his feeble attempts to resist. "She's alright now."

"But the blood…" a brief flash of what he had seen just hours ago appeared in his mind.

Anko, a mass of red laying on the forest floor, covered head to toe in cuts and bruises. Legs and hands broken, jaw dislocated, barely breathing. So much blood…

"She lost a lot…But we got to her in time. That Doctor friend of yours worked on her personally, she's stable now." Kurohane explained.

"I have to go see her." Naruto tried to move around his Familiar/bodyguard/girlfriend, but she continued to hold him in place.

"You have to calm down. Do you even remember what happened to you last night?"

"I…can't remember anything after we found Anko." Naruto confessed, wracking his brain for answers and coming up with nothing.

"That's because you passed out. I don't know what happened, exactly; all I know is that, when we found her, you went crazy…Well, crazier than you already were, and then you just fell over." Kurohane wasn't about to mention that she was pretty sure Naruto had been crying, too. "That Doctor said your brain flipped the 'off' switch because you were pushing your body too hard without enough recovery time."

"…" Naruto looked off to the side, recognizing an "I told you so" when he heard it.

"When's the last time you ate something?" Kurohane asked out of the blue.

"Yesterday morning." Naruto answered, remembering his late breakfast with his team after a fairly light pre-dawn training session. "Why?"

"Because he also told me your body wasn't producing chakra at its normal rate. He said it was probably due to you going too long without eating. Your metabolism is too high for you to get away with that."

"It's only been twenty-two hours. I've gone a lot longer than that before." Naruto shrugged. Given, he hadn't done so recently.

"…" Kurohane just fixed him with a withering stare.

Naruto was unimpressed, but, as if on-cue, his stomach unleashed a growl not unlike that of an angry dog.

"…Fine." he relented.

"Great!"

"But I need you to do something for me." Naruto then filled her in on the situation with Kiba and Akamaru.

While she wasn't familiar with Kiba or the dog, and she didn't interact with Hinata much, either, Kurohane was quick to realize the effect it would have on the girl. If there was ever a poster child for self-esteem issues, it was Hinata Hyūga.

"Just when she's coming out of her shell, this happens. How are you gonna keep her from finding out, though? You can't hide it forever."

"Leave that to me. If this works out, she'll never have to know." Naruto assured. "What I need is for you to go back to the hospital and grab the dog's soul, which is still hanging around Kiba. Would you be able to preserve it so it doesn't deteriorate over time?"

"Well, yeah, I suppose. I mean, I've never done it before, but I know how."

"Excellent. You remember the Corpser, right?" getting a helpless shrug from Kurohane, Naruto rolled his eyes and sighed. "Giant demonic spider that shoots lasers from its eyes."

"Oh, come on! Sure, I remember fighting the thing, but you can't expect me to remember its freakin' name! In fact, I didn't even know it had a name until now!" Kurohane replied indignantly.

"I told you its name."

"When?"

"When we went to the Shadow Realm and I showed you The Line. Remember, I put its soul into a Darkness Construct body and took control of it?"

"…Okay, I do remember that, but I still don't remember you telling me its name." Kurohane huffed.

"I…nevermind. Look, I plan on doing something similar with Akamaru, and I need his soul to be pristine. The Corpser had a very powerful soul and wasn't stuck in the Soul Edge for long, yet it still decayed to the point that all traces of its former personality were gone. A weak soul like Akamaru's would probably be completely assimilated into the sword within a few minutes. And even if it wasn't, the soul would most certainly decay significantly, which would defeat the purpose of whole plan. You're the only one I can turn to for this, Kuro-chan."

As soon as he said it, Naruto immediately regretted using the "pet name". Though it wasn't his intention, the way it came out made it sound like he was trying to manipulate her. Like those men and women who used terms of endearment to get their significant others to do things they clearly didn't want to do. He had seen it countless times, both in person and through his clones, during his random observations of the general populace over the years, and he never thought very highly of it.

Fortunately, Kurohane didn't seem to see it that way.

"You can count on me!" she said as she put on her "Game Face".

"Thank you. And try to avoid Hinata if you can. If you can't, say you're there to visit Anko or the twins." Naruto advised.

"Don't worry about it. I may not be a ninja, but I am a Spirit Beast! I can be totally invisible to anyone who's not super sensitive or Touched, and I can go through solid objects." to demonstrate the latter ability, Kurohane swung her right arm out to the side, where the appendage passed right through the doorframe.

"Just be careful."

"I will. Now get your butt in the dining room, one of your clones is whipping something up." Kurohane ordered as she yanked Naruto out of his room and proceeded to "guide" him down the hall.

"I get it, I'm going. You go get the dog's soul. The longer this thing takes, the greater the chances of it blowing up in my face." Naruto groused, increasing his pace to pull away from the overbearing Familiar.

"Alright, alright, I'll be back before you know it!" Kurohane flashed a thumbs-up and began to sink into her shadow. "Oh, and be sure to talk to Haku-chan when you get the chance. Something's…changed."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I dunno, but something about her is definitely different. Sei-chan picked up on it as soon as she was brought in, and hasn't left her side since, according to your clones. I felt it, too. I've got no idea what's going on, but whatever it is, even her soul has been affected by it." with those parting words, Kurohane was gone, leaving Naruto with even more questions to add to the ever-growing list.

"It just doesn't end." the boy muttered to himself and headed towards the dining room.

When he entered, true to Kurohane's word, there was a clone in the kitchen with a bowl and a whisk. Though it didn't say anything at first, it was clear from its body language that it wasn't exactly pleased to be there.

"…Remember when it was just YOU who bossed us around?" the clone finally spoke as Naruto opened the refrigerator to pull out a large jug of orange juice. "Good times."

"To be fair, no one else gives you orders, they just ask you to do things. You have the option of saying 'no'." Naruto countered.

"Right." the clone scoffed, continuing its needlessly aggressive whisking.

"I can't help but notice that I'm the only one you all mouth off to. When I tell you to do something, more often than not I get a bunch of lip from at least one of you. But when one of them ASKS you to do something, you're all 'Yes, ma'am'. And now you're bitching at me, when I had nothing to do with your current 'assignment'." Naruto set the juice jug down on the counter with more force than intended, nearly splitting the container. "Next time, if you hate playing butler, chef, tour guide or whatever else, either grow a pair and tell them off, or lie and say you're busy. But you already accepted this job, so shut your fucking mouth and DO IT!"

The clone stopped dead and stared at its creator for a few seconds. If it'd had a face underneath its mask, its eyebrows would've been halfway to its hairline in surprise.

"Okay, Boss isn't in the mood today, duly noted." the clone returned to the task at hand, sitting the bowl down on the counter and moving to turn on the burner under one of the pans on the stove. "Scrambled eggs okay?"

"Sure." Naruto sighed, running a hand through his hair. Both him and the clone suddenly froze, their bodies involuntarily locking up for just a moment.

"…And you?" the clone asked, looking warily over its right shoulder at their new guest.

"No thank you, I won't be staying too long." Shizaru answered from his seat at the dining room table."But do keep some fresh liver around, in case I decide to take you up on the offer some other time."

Naruto groaned inwardly. This was just about the last thing he wanted to deal with right now. Or ever.

"I'll try to remember that next time I go shopping." Naruto drawled before walking over to the table and taking a seat at the end opposite the Archdemon.

"It's been a while, Halfling."

"I guess."

"What, you're not pouting over our last meeting, are you? I do apologize for leaving so abruptly, but I really did have more important matters to attend to."

"To leave a round of your favorite game unfinished like that, I imagine so."

"I wouldn't call it 'unfinished'; I did concede defeat, afterall."

"…" Naruto removed his mask, revealing a deadpan stare, and took a drink of orange juice straight from the jug.

Shizaru chuckled before changing topics. "But it's appropriate that you bring that up, since I'm actually here to congratulate you on another big win."

"You don't say." while he tried to sound calm and collected, Naruto could already feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.

"I do." a slight forward tilt of Shizaru's hood indicated a nod. "To be clear, I had little doubt that you would be able to defeat Rumare, but I thought he would give you more trouble than he did…Then again, you can't claim all the credit for that, can you? If not for the girl turning on him, you'd probably still be trapped in his little funhouse."

"Probably." Naruto admitted. No point in trying to deny the truth.

"Humility? That's new."

"Mm." Naruto grunted and took another drink.

"Ah, I wanted to ask, did you like my present?" Shizaru inquired, suddenly shifting gears again.

"What present?" Naruto asked, then immediately grimaced, not knowing whether or not he'd just wasted a question.

"Him, of course." Shizaru pointed to something behind Naruto.

A split second later, a large shadow loomed over Naruto, causing him to rocket up out of his seat and clear to the other side of the room. There, still standing behind his vacated chair, was the hulking, black-clad figure of the headless creature several of Naruto's clones had told him about. A monster that had swatted Jōnin like flies, dominated N2 and had even given Old Man Sarutobi a workout.

"My, aren't we jumpy today?" Shizaru remarked. "Don't worry, you have nothing to fear from him. For now. But I don't blame you for being wary; he is intimidating. Quite iconic as well, which is why I was so surprised that so few people recognized him, yourself included. Tell me, Halfling, do you watch movies?"

"…On occasion." Naruto answered, maintaining his distance. The clones hadn't exaggerated about the humanoid monster's size; if anything, they'd understated it. Even without a head, it was taller than Shizaru himself, and much bulkier.

"I've been a fan of movies all my life, and they've given me countless ideas over the centuries. Are you familiar with a movie called 'The Hollow'?"

"No."

"Pity, it really is a great film. Different, but every bit as good as the original 'Sleepy Hollow'. I still find it incredible that it hasn't lost anything, even though this is the ninety-eighth time it's been remade in the past five millennia. It's a given that things have to change with every incarnation to fit the current audience; afterall, the Headless Horseman from the original would hardly scare anyone these days. But no matter the generation, people can still appreciate a good ghost story."

"Five millennia?" the question came out before Naruto could stop himself.

He could feel Shizaru's smirk as he answered.

"Oh yes, the film's origins go back that far. Even further than that, if you count the legend it was based on. It's hardly a new thing; there are hundreds of 'modern' movies that go back that far, and tens of thousands of products and brand names."the Archdemon explained. "As far as you and most other humans know, the Snickers bar came about some fifty years ago right here in Konohagakure. But in reality, you'd have to add two more zeroes to the end of that number, and even then you'd be several centuries off. And while you know things like televisions, phones, cameras and computers were around well before the current era, they go back much further than you think." Shizaru chuckled and shook his head. "It's funny, isn't it? How little humans actually know about 'their' world."

"…"

"Well, you aren't much better, so I suppose it wouldn't be so amusing to you. But that's neither here nor there. You never did answer my question about the present, though."

"No."

"Oh well, I should've known that an imitation would never be as good as the real thing. I guess I'm just not used to giving gifts. But don't worry; I'll get it right next time. Your birthday is coming up soon, right?"

"…"

"Anyway, I've said most of what I came here to say. Just two more things, and I'll let you get back to your breakfast. The first, you have three questions left, so think hard about what you want to know. Second, you'll have to find another way to carry out your little plan for the dog."

"And of course you won't tell me why." Naruto rolled his eyes, doing his best to not let on how disturbed he was that Shizaru knew of his plan at all.

"And I advise you not to waste a question by asking." Shizaru said. "We both know you wouldn't take my word for it anyway, so why bother? That said, you should probably make a trip to the Shadow Realm anyway, just to check up on things. If I remember correctly, your Shadow Realm has a timescale of three-to-one, and I believe it's been fifteen days since your last visit. That means it's been forty-five Shadow Realm days; who knows what's happened in that time?"

"You've done something." Naruto growled.

"Your friends, the Guardians, probably think you've forgotten about them." Shizaru continued, ignoring the accusation. "I doubt they're lonely, but going a month and a half without dropping by to say 'hello' doesn't exactly send the best message, now does it? And speaking of greetings, do give my regards to Pondera and Fragilitas. It's been a long time since I last saw them in person."

"If I remember, I'll be sure to do that."

"Then I suppose I shouldn't expect much. You've always been the forgetful type." Shizaru gave a melodramatic sigh, then suddenly snapped his fingers as if he had remembered something. "Oh! And be careful with that book, would you? You've already seen what happens when fools tamper with things they don't understand."

Naruto couldn't stop himself from flinching when the Archdemon vanished right before his eyes; it was just too unnerving. He was there, and then he was gone, without the slightest hint of visible movement or sound. Even the air around him didn't give him away, when by all rights he should have been creating gusts of wind just by moving so fast.

Deciding to hold off on pondering the possible mechanics behind the technique the demon called "Shinsoku", Naruto noticed that the Horseman was gone as well. He took no comfort in that fact. If anything, it made him even more anxious. But what really had the alarm bells ringing in his head was the fact that Shizaru had clearly been in a good mood, and he had a feeling it wasn't just because Rumare was dead.

(Meanwhile)

Sitting on her bed in her sparsely decorated room, Haku rubbed her throbbing left cheek.

"Ow!" she hissed, her eyes starting to tear up again. "Why did Kaa-san hit me? I didn't do anything…" she mumbled to herself before looking over to the glass of water on her dresser.

She stood up, walked over to it and stared at the glass intently. Seconds later the water inside began to move, almost as if it was boiling, and slowly "crawled" up the sides of the glass. It reached the rim and continued upward, until it was floating in a perfect sphere several inches above the glass.

Haku's eyes sparkled as she cupped her tiny hands under the ball and brought it closer. How could something so pretty possibly be bad? Try and she might, she just couldn't understand why her mother had been so angry.

'Maybe Tou-san will like it?' Haku thought. Though her interactions with other children were limited, with her mother always showing up and dragging her off before she could make any friends, she had seen enough to know that boys tended to like "cool" stuff. Her father was a boy, so he probably liked "cool" stuff, too. And floating water was cool, right?

But then her mother had specifically told her not to show her father what she could do. Ever. She'd made Haku promise to keep it a secret between them.

'That's not fair.' Haku thought with a frown. 'I bet she's just mad because she can't do it.' that had to be it. Every other time her mother had told her that something was bad, she told her why it was bad. Snakes were bad because they could bite you and make you sick. The really thick fog was bad because if you were stuck inside it, you wouldn't be able to breathe without a special mask. The woods were bad because monsters lived there, and they would eat you if they found you alone. Ninjas were bad because they were big bullies who liked to hurt people for no reason. There had always been a "because" before, so why not now? Because her mother was making it up this time, obviously.

Her mother had always said that lying was bad, too, because it ended up hurting everyone; the liar and everybody they lied to. But now her mother was lying. Maybe she had always been lying?

'And now she's trying to make me a liar by keeping secrets from Tou-san!' Haku's cheeks puffed out as she started to get mad. "I'm not a bad girl! I'm telling Tou-san!" she exclaimed, though the volume was barely above her normal speaking voice. She had always been a quiet child.

She suddenly felt something very cold drop into her hands and gave out a yelp as she moved them away, letting the object fall to the floor with a low "thud". It was the ball of water, now frozen solid and rolling away from her. Somehow, being frozen made it even prettier, like a huge marble.

Haku followed after the ball and picked it back up, marveling at the thing she had created. Only to drop it again when the front door of the cottage was thrown open with so much force, that the entire structure shook when it hit the wall.

"Get in here. Now!" she heard her father yell, though it sounded like he was trying to be quiet. Hurried footsteps followed the demand, and the door slammed shut, shaking the home again.

"T-Tōma, I-I…" came her mother's trembling, barely audible voice.

"Shut up!" her father hissed. "Do you have ANY idea what you've done?"

"P-Please, honey, it's n-not-"

"DON'T YOU DARE LIE TO ME!" Haku's father roared, then immediately brought his voice down lower. "I saw it with my own eyes!"

From there her parents started speaking more quietly, and eventually moved to a different part of the cottage, making the conversation even more difficult to hear.

'I bet they're in the kitchen.' Haku thought as she silently crept out of her room and towards the front of the structure.

As she got closer to the kitchen, she could hear them again, but something strange was happening.

"I…family…random…chance…" those were the only words Haku could pick out from her mother, the rest was just gibberish.

"Well…history…one…give…any…weakest…new…chances…" she didn't get anything better out of her father.

By the time Haku got to the entrance of the kitchen, she couldn't make out any actual words. Hunkering down low, she peeked around the corner to see her father with his hands on her mother's head, staring hard into her eyes.

"I swear…family…" her mother spoke with tears running down her cheeks.

Her father held the woman for a few seconds more, then let her go and leaned over the kitchen sink, breathing heavily.

"I…leave…fire…we…" the man suddenly stopped talking and flinched as if something has startled him. He then slowly lift his head, and just as slowly turned it towards Haku's mother.

Haku couldn't directly see his face, but her mother could, and what she saw clearly scared her. Her eyes widened, the color drained from her face and her mouth worked up and down, but no sounds came out, gibberish or otherwise. She shook her head "no", slowly at first, then so rapidly that it looked painful.

And then…

"…LYING…STOP…ME!" the next thing Haku knew, her father was stabbing her mother in the stomach over and over again, screaming and crying all at once. "…LOVED…LIES…DREAMS…RUINED…TOOK…ME…"

Seconds seemed to stretch on forever until he finally stopped, letting the body fall to the floor.

Unfortunately, it happened to land in such a way that Haku was forced to stare into the blank, lifeless eyes of her dead mother. And then she looked up, into the eyes of her father. At five years old, she didn't know the words to describe what she saw in them. She knew "anger", "sadness" and "hate", but "fury", "despair" and "loathing" were beyond her grasp.

But she knew enough to be afraid. Very, very afraid. Running hadn't even been a conscious decision, her body just moved on its own, driven by pure instinct. She didn't remember leaving the cottage, but by the time she was back in control, she found herself sprinting toward the trees.

She knew she could never outrun her father; that's why playing Tag with him was no fun. But if she could get into the woods, she could hide from him. Her mother had warned her that if she went too deep into the woods, there was little hope that anyone would ever find her, and she was counting on that now. Plus, her father was terrible at Hide and Seek.

Haku had no idea how much of a head start she had, and she wasn't about to look back to find out. But then she heard his scream echo across the field, revealing that he was still quite a ways back.

"…BASTARD!"

(Haku's Apartment)

Haku awoke with a start, eyes moving around rapidly and every muscle in her body like a coiled spring, ready to unleash their stored energy at a moment's notice. She barely relaxed upon realizing she was safe in her bed.

She sat up and placed her head in her hands, noting that her face, as well as every other part of her body, was drenched in sweat.

"Ugh…" she grimaced as she felt the wetness in the mattress underneath her, though she couldn't work up the motivation to get up.

It had been a long time since she'd had that dream. So long, in fact, that she'd thought she had successfully repressed the memory of her last moments as a normal, happy child with a normal, happy family. The memories of the immediate aftermath never left, though.

Hours of running through the woods, having no idea where she was going and flinching at every little sound. The most terrifying night of her life, sitting in the shadow of a large tree, scared, confused and hungry, but not terribly cold despite the freezing winter temperatures. Almost being caught by her father, who had been close enough to her hiding place for her to see the glint of the moonlight shining off the blade of his woodcutting axe, before he gave up and went back home. But not before shouting out that he would be back in the morning with a hunting party to put her down like the "mongrel" she was.

Yes, Haku remembered all of that, and still had the occasional nightmare. But she hadn't relived the moment of her mother's death in years. And even when it had been a regular occurrence, to the point that she actively tried to avoid sleeping for a time, the memory had always been oddly fuzzy and incomplete. Her parents' conversation had always been garbled and incomprehensible, but never had the sequence of events come through so clearly. Before there had only been brief flashes of random points in time, accompanied by incoherent noises.

Haku honestly couldn't say which version was worse.

She took a glance at the clock on her nightstand and did a double-take. "8:40? How?!" she wanted to believe it was wrong, but she could tell it was morning just from the sunlight coming in through her bedroom window.

But that shouldn't have been possible, because the last she remembered, it was will into the afternoon when she had been out with the other girls. Had they hit a bar or something? Alcohol has been the culprit on previous occasions when she had woken up with only the vaguest of memories of what happened. But if she had gotten wasted yesterday, why didn't she have a hangover? In fact she felt…great! Well, aside from the gross, slimy, sticky feeling of being absolutely coated in sweat.

"I need a shower." Haku mumbled to herself as she lifted the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Whose bright idea was it to put her under the covers, anyway? There was a reason she kept the air conditioning cranked to the max in her apartment!

Grumbling to herself, Haku got up and made her way to the bathroom. With her brain still trying to get itself back up to speed, several things escaped her notice. Like a sleeping Seizonsha curled up on the pillow next to her. And the fact that someone had re-dressed her; she most certainly hadn't gone shopping in a nightgown yesterday.

(9:00am)

"Y'know, for someone who claimed that he 'wasn't that hungry', you sure were hungry." Naruto's clone remarked as it went about cleaning up the kitchen.

Naruto responded with a one-finger salute, but didn't stop eating. The clone wasn't wrong; Naruto maintained that he didn't need as much food as the clone had made, but once he started eating, he found that he couldn't stop. His body was on autopilot, shoveling food into his mouth almost faster than he could chew it. He barely even had time to breathe between mouthfuls.

It didn't help that his metabolism ramped up to downright ludicrous levels. His body was breaking down the food and absorbing the nutrients at such a high rate, he could literally feel it happening. It wasn't a new sensation to him, but it never got any less weird. That said, he was feeling a lot better than he had upon waking up. Nowhere near full strength, but he didn't feel so…vulnerable anymore.

A knock at door made him pause mid-chew.

"Naruto-kun? It's Haku." even though her voice was muffled by the door, her distress was clear.

After taking a moment to feel out the chakra signature and confirm it was really her, Naruto donned his mask and opened the door. As soon as he saw her, he knew something was wrong.

Naruto had heard the Orasu sisters describe Haku as an "effortless beauty", and he had to agree with them. She didn't need makeup, designer clothes, flashy jewelry or fashionable hairstyles to turn heads wherever she went. That said, she did take some pride in her appearance and never left her apartment without at least making sure she was presentable. But now she stood before him clearly unconcerned with what she looked like, with her wet hair clinging to her face and dripping all over her loose-fitting light blue t-shirt. Not that it really made a difference, since it was already soaked. Clearly she had stepped right out of the shower and hadn't even bothered to dry off before getting dressed. Naruto could even see the water droplets on her long, slender legs, fully exposed by her gray…

'Are those boxers?' Naruto wondered as his eyes landed on the odd, and oddly familiar, choice in bottoms Haku was sporting.

"Can…Can I come in?" Haku asked, fidgeting in a way that actually made Naruto uncomfortable. He had never seen her this nervous before.

"Of course." Naruto said, stepping aside. "What's wrong?"

"Something happened yesterday." Haku stated. "I woke up barely realizing where I was and couldn't remember anything that happened after I left the girls. At first I thought we had gone out drinking and I was hungover, but that didn't make sense." she started pacing back and forth in Naruto's living room, which was when he noticed that she was barefoot. "When I was in the shower, I started remembering things…Things that can't possibly be real, but…"

"What did you see?" Naruto inquired, gently guiding the girl to a seat at his table.

"My father…" Haku paused for a moment to compose herself, but didn't really succeed. "I remember leaving the girls to go back for some…things that caught my eye earlier in the day. I was in the store, uh, browsing and then it all went wrong. I remember a pain so intense that it made be black out for a moment, and the screaming…When it subsided, the first thing I saw was my father standing over me with an axe." she shuddered violently as he images returned.

"Y'know, it's kinda funny how damn near everyone you know has 'parental problems', especially daddy issues." Nightmare remarked with a yawn.

'Not the time, Nightmare.' Naruto shot back, silencing the demon for the moment.

"I panicked and jumped right through the store window to get outside, but it only got worse. There were dozens of them! Of Him! I kept running, but I couldn't get away from them. They were around every corner, inside every building; some of them even attacked me from the rooftops! I knew it wasn't real. It couldn't possibly be real…But it didn't matter. Nothing I did could break the illusion. And then one of them hit me. It hurt. Knocked me down and even left a bruise. It couldn't be real…but it was…"

As she trailed off, Haku's body language changed in a way that was almost unnoticeable unless you knew what to look for. The tension and twitchiness were still there, but the confusion and anxiety had now given way to anger.

"Everything changed. It was like a light bulb turning on in my head. I wasn't a defenseless six-year-old anymore. I didn't have to take this, I didn't have to be scared of him; he had to be scared of me! I fought back. I killed him. I…I think I went crazy. What he did to Mom…what he did to me…I was so mad. So fucking mad! I didn't stop. I kept killing them. Some tried to run, some tried to fight, but I killed them all the same."

For a brief moment, Naruto envied the girl. Oh, how sweet it would be to have an infinite number of fathers to slaughter at his leisure…

'Shut up.' he snapped mentally. He could literally feel Nightmare's snarky comment coming.

"I lost count of how many I put down. Thirty? Forty? Maybe more. But then some of them really started fighting back. One of them even punched me THROUGH a building. I still managed to kill him, but I was in no shape to fight anymore. So I tried to hide, but they kept finding me…The last thing I remember is being surrounded by them. I was so sure I was going to die, and I decided I wouldn't make it easy for them. But they caught me and that was it…" Haku looked at Naruto, her expression so lost and afraid that it made him uncomfortable. "I was a mess, Naruto, and I should have died. But instead I woke up in my own bed, well-rested and feeling…great. Why?"

"…" Naruto had no idea what to say.

Haku wasn't like Kurohane; she had killed many times before and had no reservations about the act itself. However, much like Naruto himself, she was firmly opposed to taking the lives of those who didn't have it coming. He had learned from Zabuza that it took two days of constant pestering, cajoling and bargaining just to get Haku to take part in the mission to assassinate the bridge builder in Wave Country. And even then she refused to lay a finger on the old man personally. So Naruto had no idea how she would take the news that she had murdered dozens of innocent people, even if it wasn't her fault.

Haku noticed his hesitation and the sinking feeling in her stomach got worse, but still she pushed on.

"Please, Naruto. I…I don't care how bad it is, I have to know. And if it's even close to how bad I think it is, you can't hide it from me anyway."

"…Fine, if that's what you want." and with that, Naruto told her everything. Even things that he knew should be classified information. The only thing he left out was the fact that he was the one who had unwittingly unleashed the illusion in the first place.

"You really need to get over that." Nightmare snorted. "There's no way you could've known what would happen, and if you hadn't done it EVERYONE would've died. Rumare had you dead to rights, kid, and was moving in for the kill. If you had died, the whole village would've been fucked. Cut yourself some slack."

'You think anyone else would see it that way? If they know that they can blame me, they will blame me.' Naruto replied.

"I'm not saying make a public announcement, I'm saying you need to stop dwelling on it."

Before Naruto could reply, Haku spoke up.

"So I killed upwards of forty people yesterday…" she said in a strangely matter-of-fact tone.

"Most of whom tried to kill you, too." Naruto pointed out.

"I know, but claiming self-defense doesn't really change anything, does it? I still killed them."

"Would you rather they killed you?"

"No, but…" Haku sighed deeply, "I've gotten used to killing. I don't like it, but I've gotten used to it. But there are times when I think about the people I've killed. People whose only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ninjas who happened to have supplies that we needed, or unintentionally got in our way. I can't help but think about them. Whose story did I end? Did I just make someone, somewhere, a widow or widower? Did I just make a child an orphan? How many lives did I wreck with each throat I slit?"

"…You can't think like that." Naruto said. "You'll tear yourself apart."

"I can't help it. I tried, Zabuza tried, the sisters tried, even the Demon Brothers tried. All we were able to do was get me to the point where I could still do what needed to be done, no matter how I felt about it. And I'm okay with that. I want to feel, because I've seen far too many who don't. I've seen what's left over when compassion and empathy are gone, and I'd rather die than let myself go down that path." Haku spoke with a resolve that Naruto had never heard from her before.

"The path you're on now leads to madness just as often in our line of work."

"So I've been told." the dark-haired girl flashed a small smile as she remembered the stories Zabuza used to tell her about ninjas he knew who were too nice to be killers, but too good at it to be anything else.

According to him, without fail every single one of them eventually turned to alcohol, among other things, to numb the mental agony they put themselves through. Most ended up committing suicide in one way or another, and the others lived long enough to become just as jaded and cynical as everyone else.

"I'd like to think I'm different, but I'm sure everyone thinks that way in the beginning." Haku sighed again, wiping a tear away with the back of her hand.

"You have no reason to beat yourself up over this. There was no way you could've known what was coming, and there was nothing you could've done after the fact. Cut yourself some slack."

"..Really?"

"You make it sound so easy." Haku chuckled ruefully. "But it's not that simple, not this time. I live here; I'll have to go out and face the people of this village every day, possibly for the rest of my life. What's worse is that I don't even know who I killed! So from now on, with every resident I meet, I'll be looking them in the eyes and smiling in their faces, all the while wondering if I killed someone close to them. And I'll never know. All I know is that dozens of people died by my hands yesterday. Dozens of people who may have had wives and husbands, children and siblings. Dozens of lives ended, with countless more changed forever because of it. Because of me." she croaked, head in her hands as her body shuddered with barely suppressed sobs.

"…" Naruto had nothing. He couldn't relate to her in the least. Not once had he ever spared a thought to the families of the people he killed. In fact, a good chunk of them didn't have families anymore, which was their reason for coming after him in the first place.

He didn't care about them. He had no reason to care about them. Usually they were just as bad as the ones he killed, blaming him for everything. They could all go to hell. Empathy and compassion? They didn't deserve it

"I…I need to be alone for a while." Haku mumbled, bangs hiding her eyes as she rose from the chair and went for the door.

Naruto wanted to stop her and make her sit back down. The last thing she needed was to be alone with her thoughts; she needed to talk to someone…Someone who wasn't him. He couldn't help her, and he didn't know if he knew anyone who could. He had a feeling even Zabuza wouldn't be much help.

So he let her walk out, with each step she took making him feel like a bigger piece of shit. When the door closed, he unconsciously rose from his seat, like he was going to go after her, and even took a few steps before realizing it wouldn't do any good.

"Goddammit." he hissed, suppressing the urge to lash out at something. "Thanks." he said after taking a moment to calm down.

A second later Kurohane seemed to materialize out of thin air, throwing a worried look at the door, then to Naruto.

"Uh…is that sarcasm?" she asked sheepishly, thinking Naruto was ticked off by her eavesdropping and leaving him to deal with the awkwardness by himself.

"No, I mean it. If you had showed yourself, she would've questioned you and I doubt you'd have been able to lie to her if you tried. She's guilt-tripping herself enough as it is; how do you think she'd react if she knew what she did to you?"

"I get it, mum's the word."

"Mm. Did you get Akamaru?"

"Yeah, but it took some doing." Kurohane nodded. "He did NOT want to leave that boy's side."

"What did you tell him?" Naruto asked, knowing his Familiar wouldn't have forced the pup to come along against his will.

"The truth." the pale girl replied with a shrug. "You're going to bring him back to life."

'Hopefully.' Naruto thought, remembering what Shizaru had told him. "Did you run into any trouble?"

"Not exactly, but there's something weird going on around here." Kurohane replied.

"Of course there is, because a break is too much to ask for." Naruto grumbled. "'Weird' how?"

"Remember when Ren said that the whole village was full of restless souls?"

"I believe he said it was 'haunted as fuck', yes."

"Well, somehow it's become less haunted. There should be even more wandering around after so many traumatic deaths, but it feels like the numbers have gone down. It's the same at the hospital; there were a lot more ghosts around when we brought your teacher out of Limbo."

"You think it's connected to that?" Naruto asked, now starting to genuinely worry. What if pulling Kakashi out opened a door that didn't close all the way? No one knew how Limbo worked, so who was to say it couldn't happen? 'Just what I need, another potential crisis.'

"Gods, I hope not. I'll talk to Ren."

"Right. I need to check on Anko. I'll contact you when I'm ready to head to the Shadow Realm." Naruto said, walking towards the door without waiting for a response. "And yes, I did eat."

Kurohane furrowed her brow as the door closed, then turned to the table and blinked at the number of dishes piled up on it.

"So I see…"

(Konoha General Hospital, 9:25am)

Segata Yamanaka wasn't having a good day. Well, no one was having a good day, but the universe had seen fit to pile misfortune after misfortune upon him. It started even before the attack on the village, when things had gone wrong on what was supposed to have been a relatively simple mission. He and his team had survived, but he had ended up with his right leg broken in four places and a shattered patella. Him being a Medic meant nothing; the injuries required surgery.

Once he got back to the village and got himself fixed up, more bad news followed. His bones had been broken so badly, that the doctors had a difficult time getting them to mend back together, even with advanced healing techniques passed down by Tsunade herself. Until the bones fully healed, the sites of the breaks were weak points in his leg, and could easily break again if subjected to sufficient shock. So just like that, he was pulled from active duty.

Then the village was attacked and he was all but useless, since his limited mobility meant that fighting was out of the question. However, he didn't need two good legs to be a Medic, so he offered his services at the hospital, where he was initially more than welcome. But Segata couldn't keep up with the pace set by those around him and found himself being shooed away, and even physically pushed aside several times.

Hell, he couldn't even catch a break when he stayed out of the way! Just a few minutes ago the Head Nurse, Tsubasa, had caught him in one of the break rooms and chewed him out like he had killed a patient. Then, before he could even get a word in, she ordered him to make rounds in the East Wing.

"I know she's stressed out, but did she have to be so mean about it?" Segata muttered to himself as he stopped in front of room 313. He took the clipboard out of the tray next to the door and frowned. "Mitarashi Anko, huh?" he had never met her personally, but he knew people who had worked with her and they had nothing but respect for her. He had also heard many of the rumors and stories surrounding her, but he never put stock in any of it. If even half of them contained a lick of truth, the woman would've been executed years ago.(1)

But what made Segata raise an eyebrow was the handwritten note at the top right corner of the paper. It read, "Unauthorized Personnel DO NOT ENTER" in big, red letters, clearly done with a marker. It was even underlined five times.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Segata scratched his head. His first instinct was to go find someone and get an explanation, but that notion was banished by the thought of running into Tsubasa again. Plus, he had spent the last twenty-four hours being treated like he didn't know what he was doing, and he wasn't too keen on proving anyone right by running for help. "Besides, it's just a routine check, what could possibly go wrong?"

The young Chūnin ignored the chill that ran up his spine and entered room 313.

The first thing he noticed was that the woman was a mess. Her face, save for her left eye, was the only part of her body that wasn't encased in a cast or bandages, and she was hooked to a respirator. Picking up her medical chart, Segata let out a low whistle. The Doctors had worked a miracle just keeping her alive! How she was in stable condition just hours after such an ordeal, he had no idea.

With a shrug, Segata carried on about his business, making sure everything was in order.

"Okay…Nothing needs changed, heart rate at twenty beats-per-minute, still unresponsive to external stimuli, still needs the respirator…No need for any blood work or medication…Alrighty, then." everything was normal.

Until it wasn't.

Noting that there was no pen with the clipboard, Segata reached into the right pocket of his lab coat to get the one he'd taken with him earlier. However, whatever was in his pocket wasn't a pen. The unknown object turned out to be a cheap, disposable scalpel with a plastic handle and an end cap over the blade.

Before he could question where it had come from, killing intent like nothing he had ever felt crashed over him like a tsunami. It pressed down on him as a physical force, causing his knees to buckle under the strain. His body convulsed and broke out in a cold sweat as he began to hyperventilate, and his mind wasn't faring any better. With every one of his instincts wailing and screaming at once, coherent thoughts were lost in the chaos. Even electrical impulses from his nerves weren't getting through properly, which was why he barely registered that there was a bleeding stump where his right hand used to be.

The next thing he knew, his throat was being crushed in an iron grip, and then he was flying through the air.

(Meanwhile)

Tsubasa wasn't having a good day. In fact, the last twenty-four hours had been the shittiest of her professional life; even dethroning the aftermath of the Kyuubi attack. Before, she thought her being a greenhorn back then had contributed to making that night so particularly difficult. But now, almost thirteen years later, she knew that her inexperience had been a blessing in disguise back then.

As a rookie, no one really expected anything of her. If she fucked up, people yelled at her, sure, but the general attitude had been, "Of course she fucked up". Insulting, yes, but they weren't wrong.

But as the Head Nurse? Everyone looked to her for answers, even some of the Doctors. People no longer expected her to screw up; they expected her to know everything. Of course she knew how to treat that wound. Of course she knew where the muscle relaxants are. Of course she could identify what that patient was suffering from.

It was easy to see why she was so stressed out, and why her patience had been worn down to nearly nothing. Even a Field Medic trying to help out, which normally would've been received with a smile and a "thank you", pissed her off simply by being ignorant of the standard procedures in the hospital. It wasn't his fault; he had no reason to retain knowledge that had probably been useless to him for a decade, or whenever his training at the hospital had been completed.

But even though she knew that, she'd ripped him a new one when she caught him lounging around in a break room. All of her pent up frustration and anger finally had an outlet, and the genie wasn't about to be put back in the bottle. She'd even felt an almost perverse satisfaction when he scampered off like a scolded dog. She was pretty sure he even whimpered on his way out the door.

However, once she had a few minutes to calm down and think, she realized that she had made a mistake. One that had the potential to end very, very badly for the young man.

Tsubasa had told him to make rounds in the East Wing. Anko Mitarashi was in the East Wing. Normally that wouldn't have been a problem; even if Segata meant her harm, which was highly unlikely, Anko could more than handle herself. But this time she was in no condition to handle anything or anyone, and if there wasn't already a troop of clones guarding her, Naruto himself would surely be checking in on her soon. And if he saw some stranger in her room…

Then, as if on cue, she felt it. Killing intent, but on a level she had no experience with. It momentarily stopped her in her tracks as every fiber of her being wanted her to turn around and run the other way. But she couldn't. She knew that her worst fear had been confirmed, and if she didn't act now, Segata Yamanaka was a dead man.

Tsubasa broke into a sprint, dashing down the halls as little more than a white blur. The frantic beeping of dozens of heart monitors made her speed up even more; Segata's life wasn't the only one on the line. She arrived on the scene just in time to see the door to room 313 explode out of the frame and into the opposite wall, propelled by a bloody and battered figure in a lab coat. Pumping chakra into her legs, she leapt at him.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as a dark figure appeared in the doorway, a large, black knife already on a downward arc towards the unfortunate Medic's head. But somehow, Tsubasa was faster, if just barely. She reached Segata just in time to push the arm holding the blade off its trajectory, resulting in a deep gouge being carved right through the steel door next to his head.

"WAIT!" she screamed, putting herself between Segata and the livid Genin set on murdering him. She prayed that Segata hadn't screwed up too badly. "Please, Naruto-kun, wait. It's a misunderstanding, I'm sure."

"Y-Y-Yeah, i-it's…" Segata tried to speak, but an unholy noise coming from deep within Naruto's chest shut him up.

"Naruto-kun, talk to me, please. Tell me what happened." oh, how she wished Dr. Mirano was there. She didn't have a lot of experience with "Angry" Naruto, so "Homicidally Furious" Naruto was WAAAAY out of her comfort zone. But neither she nor Segata were dead, yet, so at least she wasn't dealing with "Pissed Off Beyond Rational Thought" Naruto.

"…He had a scalpel." Tsubasa flinched at the sound of his voice. Combined with the glowing red eyes and the malignant energy rolling off of him, it was clear that Naruto was riled up enough to start drawing on his "tenant's" power.

She then stared at Segata in equal parts horror and confusion, desperately hoping he hadn't been that stupid.

The Medic looked back with pure panic. "I-It w-was supposed t-to b-be a p-p-pen! I swear, I h-have n-no idea h-how it g-got in m-my p-pocket!

A bead of sweat rolled down Tsubasa's temple as Naruto growled again, the sound likely to haunt her nightmares for days to come. Even if Segata's explanation was true, it was the kind of thing that sounded like a bad lie and clearly Naruto wasn't buying it.

Then Tsubasa's darting eyes caught sight of something. Reaching between Segata's legs, she picked up the back of his lab coat and her eyes widened. It was harder to see because of all the blood from the man's impromptu amputation, but it was definitely there; a small, perfectly round hole with burnt edges. A cigarette burn. One that she had seen earlier in the day, too.

"He's telling the truth, Naruto-kun. This isn't his coat; it's Dr. Serizawa's. He must have picked up the wrong one in the break room."

Slowly but surely, the malicious red glow shining through the eye-slits of Naruto's mask died out, his monstrous killing intent fading alongside it. He yanked his knife free from the steel door, causing a horrific metallic shriek that left Tsubasa and Segata's ears ringing, and hesitated for just a second before putting it back inside his jacket.

"Consider this your first and only warning." Naruto spoke, his voice betraying nothing. "If I catch you in her room again, you'll be thrown out one piece at a time." with that, he turned on his heel and walked back into Anko's room.

Tsubasa let out an explosive sigh of relief. It had been a while since she had seen her life flash before her eyes like that.

"Are they…Are they a 'thing'?" Segata asked, his speech somewhat slurred. "'Cause the last time I saw a guy that mad, it turned out I was dating his wife..." seeing Tsubasa's disgusted glare, he quickly added, "I didn't know she was married, swear to God!"

Tsubasa rolled her eyes and cupped her glowing left hand over Segata's stump. She then reached into the pouch on her left hip to get a Blood Pill.

"Here, eat this and let's go." she said, stuffing the pill into the Yamanaka's mouth as soon as he opened it to say something.

"But my ha-" he was cut off by something flying out of room 313 and smacking him in the face before landing in his lap. Looking down, he saw that it was his severed hand. "…Thank you."

Inside the room, Naruto was no longer paying attention to the people in the hall. His attention was entirely on the woman lying in the bed, and his anger was now focused on himself.

She was here because of him. She nearly died, broken and alone out in the middle of nowhere, because of him. Because he had forgotten about her.

Against his better judgment he picked up her medical chart and winced at the extensive list of injuries. Hairline fractures around the cranium, a severe concussion, fractured left orbit, damaged left eye, fractured mandible, dislocated shoulders, broken right radius and ulna, both wrists broken, all ten fingers broken, seven busted ribs, collapsed right lung, lacerated right kidney, bruised liver, fractured left patella, broken left tibia and fibula, severed left Achilles tendon. And it was all topped off by severe blood loss as the result of hundreds of cuts all over her body, from her head down to her feet. No major blood vessels had been opened up, but the cumulative effects of so many wounds would have been more than enough to kill. They SHOULD have been enough to kill; when Naruto found her, the dirt around her body had literally been turned to mud by the amount of blood that had soaked into it.

But somehow, someway, Anko, even with her busted hands, had managed to feed herself Blood Pills to stay alive for hours. Which meant she had been awake and alert all that time. After being tortured for who knew how long, she stayed awake, waiting for help to arrive. Waiting for him. But, to her knowledge, he never came. She had run out of pills and passed out knowing that she was going to die alone out in the middle of nowhere.

"…I'm sorry." Naruto whispered, his eyes starting to sting. "I'm so sorry. I should have been there. I could have been there."

"There ain't much you could've done." Nightmare said, getting tired of listening to the boy mentally self-flagellate for not being perfect.

"I could've refused to let her go off on her own. I could've sent clones." Naruto mumbled, not registering that he was speaking out loud.

"And what would they have done? What would you have done? She was hit by that illusion; none of those Kurama maggots could have taken her down like that. The moment she was taken over, she would've lashed out at the clones and destroyed them all. And if you had been there yourself…Well, we both know you can't bring yourself to hurt her. She would've whooped your ass, and you would've let her."

"There are hundreds of ways I could beat her without hurting her."

"Ways that would work on someone with her strength, skill and experience? We're not talking about a friendly spar, kid; she would've been scared out of her mind and fighting for her life. Something tells me it wouldn't go well for you, with her going all-out and you doing your best NOT to fight her."

"…It would've been better than doing nothing."

"Okay, fine, have it your way. You fucked up, it happens; nobody's perfect." Nightmare said after an exasperated sigh.

"But I should be!" Naruto snapped. "I've spent half my life training under one of the strongest beings in existence! I'm SUPPOSED to be the perfect warrior! But all I seem to do is fuck up over and over again! I know better, I've been taught better, but it keeps happening. I get too wrapped up in my own shit and everything goes wrong because I dropped the ball!" he was suddenly struck by a wave of exhaustion and all but fell into the chair beside Anko's bed. "What the hell is wrong with me?"

"You're young." Nightmare had more to say, much more, but he knew that getting Naruto more riled up wouldn't do anyone any good at the moment.

"Yet I've got more experience than people two or three times my age. It's no excuse."

"Wow, these past twenty-four hours have turned you into a raging hypocrite, haven't they?" Nightmare snorted. "Do you remember what you told Hinata last night? I do believe it was something along the lines of 'EVERYONE makes mistakes'. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. That includes me, that includes Kyuubi, that includes your Hokage, that includes even the Gods themselves, and it damn sure includes you. Live and learn, or sit here and brood, I don't care, I'm out. Maybe you'll get it when Kyuubi rips you a new one. Again." and with that, Nightmare cut the connection on his end.

He had never met anyone, without crippling self-esteem issues, so determined to drag themselves through the mud. Someone had to make Naruto realize that mistakes are a fact of life; an inevitability that you could only do so much about. And though he meant his last remark as a dig, it probably would have to be Kyuubi since she seemed to be the only one Naruto really listened to.

For his part, the hanyō didn't bother trying to reply. On some level he knew Nightmare was right, but it didn't matter to him. His mistakes kept putting the people he cared about in danger and it seemed to be pure luck that none of them had died. But what happened to Anko was, to him, a clear indicator that the well was drying up. Finding Anko in time had been nothing short of a miracle, but the thing about miracles is that they're unreliable. Who would end up on the chopping block the next time he made a mistake?

But for now he had more pressing concerns to attend to. Like: Why weren't there at least a dozen clones guarding Anko's room?

(Konoha – Northern Sector, 10:00am)

Nine hours. That's how long Sasuke had been out helping clear debris and recover bodies. Nine hours of grueling manual labor, and yet still the Uchiha didn't feel like he was pulling his weight. No matter what he did, no matter how many people, ninjas and civilians alike, thanked him, he didn't feel it was enough. Not nearly enough to make up for his absence during the battle.

Genma had made him feel slightly better about it when he was still at home, but as soon as he saw the first burned out husks of buildings in the distance, the guilt came rushing back. He should've been out there. He should've been fighting alongside the other ninjas of Konoha to defend their home. And it only got worse as time dragged on.

Every dead body that was pulled from the rubble was someone he could have saved. He knew it was irrational, but he couldn't help how he felt. Maybe he really could have saved some of these people; but no one would ever know, because he hadn't been there!

Eventually, to keep from tormenting himself with "what ifs", the Uchiha turned his focus entirely outward. No thinking, just doing. He was a machine, outpacing most of the ninjas around him regardless of rank. He had stopped keeping count hours ago, but he had recovered eighty-two bodies almost single-handedly.

"I've got another one here!" make that eighty-three bodies.

Three vest-clad shinobi converged on the spot as the Uchiha moved on to being his search again.

"Ah fuck." one of the ninjas adopted a pained grimace.

"You know him?" another ninja asked, having trouble looking at the partially crushed male form.

"Yeah, he was my sister's boyfriend. Fucking hell, he was gonna propose to her after she got back from her mission…" the shinobi trailed off, kicking a nearby brick in anger.

Sasuke didn't register the conversation; all that mattered to him was the task at hand. So when Genma showed up the check on him, he walked right by his sensei without so much as a glance.

"Hey, kid!"

"…"

"Kid?"

"…"

"Oh, for fuck's sake. Sasuke!" Genma all but shouted in the boy's ear, finally snapping him out of his daze.

"What?! What's wrong? What happened?!" the startled youth tried to take up a fighting stance, but only succeeded in tripping over his own feet and falling flat on his face.

"You tell me." Genma replied as he helped his student back to his feet, and then found that he also had to help the boy stay on his feet. "How long has it been since you last took a break?"

"…"

"You HAVE been taking breaks, right?" Genma asked, slightly narrowed eyes boring into the young man's soul, daring him to lie.

"No. I used up all my break time last night." Sasuke said, trying to put up a front even as his legs struggled to support him.

"We'll count that as sick leave. Go to the rest station and get yourself something to eat."

"I can still work."

"No, you can't."

"Yes, I ca-!" Sasuke's protest turned into a yelp when Genma took his hand away and the Uchiha immediately fell over.

"What was that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of me being right."

"…"

"Yeah, I know, it's a wonder I ever hear anything."

"Whatever. I get it, I'm going." Sasuke tried to push himself off the ground, but found that his arms didn't want to work properly. And neither did the rest of him, for that matter.

Even if it wasn't as intense as training, nine straight hours of physical work took a toll on one's body.

"See? That's what happens when you don't pace yourself." Genma remarked, shaking his head. "Thought I beat that lesson into you a while ago."

"Are you gonna help, or be an asshole?" Sasuke growled.

"Can't I do both?"

"…"

"You're no fun." Genma huffed, then spotted one of Naruto's clones and whistled to get its attention. "Hey, are you busy?"

"Extremely." the clone drawled, spotting the Uchiha on the ground and having a sneaking suspicion about what was coming next.

"Awesome. The kid let his inner workaholic take over and is paying the price for it now. If you could 'escort' him to the nearest rest station, that'd be great." Genma said, sporting the most obnoxious grin he could muster.

The clone looked back and forth between the Jōnin and its creator's teammate several times, then let out a sigh that spoke volumes about the shit it'd had to deal with since its creation. Nevertheless, it walked over to do what was asked of it.

"Thank you." Genma said with a light snicker.

"Fuck you." the clone countered in a low growl before hoisting the Uchiha to his feet and draping the boy's arm around its shoulders to keep him upright.

As the two walked off, Genma watched with a raised eyebrow. He had a theory brewing about Naruto's clones, and what he just saw lent even more credence to it in his mind.

Throughout the night the clones had been a godsend. While they weren't as strong as the real deal, they all possessed his skill and tactical know-how, which made short work of many a monster. And even when the battle was over, they continued to prove themselves invaluable, using healing techniques to help the wounded and clearing rubble with enhanced strength and flawless coordination.

But something changed when the sun came up. The light seemed to sap them of their power, with many going out of their way to stay in the shade as much as possible. And when they did venture out into the sunlight, they stopped using the downright freaky abilities they displayed in the dark, such a stretching out their limbs to reach things, and even growing extra arms and/or tentacles at will. Genma also noted that they were much more irritable as well.

He was sorely tempted to find out what a flash bomb would do to one, but hadn't been given a reason to try it.

"Yet." the Jōnin muttered to himself, a shudder running through his body as he remembered what had happened after the battle.

Once the Hokage had dealt with the headless, knight-looking creature and the battle for Konoha had been won, the focus shifted to Naruto's clones. No one knew what to make of them, regardless of their invaluable assistance. Most expected them to disappear after their job was done, but there were many who felt they would take the opportunity to launch an attack of them own on a weakened Konoha. A lot of clones had "died" in the fight, but there were still enough left to do some major damage if they so chose.

What no one expected was for the clones to be the first to break off into groups and start digging through the rubble for bodies and possible survivors. Jaws dropped all around, and it took several minutes for people to get over the shock and follow their example. But then, just when everyone was starting to get comfortable, a strange and terrifying phenomenon unfolded before them.

At approximately 1:47am every single clone in the Northern Sector stopped what they were doing and turned to the South, towards the center of the village. They didn't speak, they didn't move, they just stared, as if they were waiting for something. Did they sense something on the horizon? Was there another attack coming? Would they be the third wave?

No one knew, and for several agonizing seconds, no one dared to move a muscle. Even the air went still, as if the planet itself was holding its breath.

And then it was over. The clones went back to their tasks and carried on like nothing had happened, some of them even picking up conversations where they'd left off.

Even now no one knew what had caused it, with the few who had worked up the guts to ask being answered with dismissive grunts or indifferent shrugs.

While Genma contemplated the single scariest thing he'd experienced in years, Sasuke was dealing with his own clone troubles. The trip to the station, a mostly-intact bar oddly enough, only took two minutes, which was about a minute and fifty-five seconds too long for Sasuke's tastes. While his masked teammate's clone didn't hurt him, it wasn't exactly gentle. His feet barely touched the ground as the clone lugged him around like he weighed nothing. Fortunately it didn't go out of its way to embarrass him, keeping up the appearance of one shinobi helping out another.

However it was somewhat mortifying for Sasuke when the clone walked him into the station, picked him up like he was a small child, then plopped him down on a stool and left without a word.

The Uchiha took some small comfort in the fact that no one spared him more than a cursory glance before returning to their own business.

"Whaddya need, Uchiha-san?" Sasuke was almost startled by the sudden appearance of a middle-aged man behind the bar.

"Uh…Something to eat and some water, I guess." the boy replied.

"You okay with ration bars?"

"'Okay' isn't the word I'd use, but I'll take them."

"Comin' right up." the man said, reaching under the counter for a bottle of water and handing it to the Genin, before heading into the back of the establishment.

As Sasuke gulped down the entire bottle in one go, a dark-haired young man wearing a flak vest entered the station. He looked around for a moment, then his eyes stopped on the bald shinobi with a goatee at the opposite end of the bar from the Uchiha. Said man didn't seem to notice the other ninja watching him, or anything else for that matter, as he was far too focused on whatever was in his right hand.

The newcomer hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath and walked over to sit on the stool next to the bald man.

"Hey, Tetsuya, um…How's it goin'?" he asked the older-looking man awkwardly.

"…"

"Ah shit, I'm sorry, that's a stupid fuckin' question. This is all so messed up. Are…Are you alright, man?"

After a good ten seconds of silence, Tetsuya finally replied, "No, Shinnosuke, I'm not alright. Probably won't be alright for a long time."

"What ha-"

"My brother and my wife killed each other. He slit her throat and she put a kunai through his skull."

"Holy shit…Wha-"

"After all the shit was over, I went to check up on the house and I found them…Found them in the bedroom, naked as the day they were born." Tetsuya dropped the tiny object in his hand onto the counter, revealing it to be a gold wedding band. "You know what else I found? A pregnancy test. A positive one. Methinks they were 'celebrating' when that Genjutsu hit." he let out a bitter chuckle. "I wonder how she was gonna explain that one to me, seeing as how we haven't had sex in nearly two months."

"Seriously?! That's-"

"Don't." Tetsuya interrupted his fellow shinobi once again, this time throwing in a withering glare. "You knew."

"The fuck you talkin' about?! I didn't know shi-"

"You knew. Even worse, you helped them hide it. I see it now, all those weird little things that I didn't think too hard about before because I trusted you. You were covering for them, keeping me off the trail. Been doing it for about two years now, haven't you?"

"…"

"Go on, tell me. Tell me you haven't been stabbing me in the back every day for the last two years. You've told so many lies already, so what's one more?

"…" Shinnosuke had nothing. He had been caught dead to rights and he could literally hear his conscience saying "told you so" over and over again in the back of his mind.

"I think you should go."

"Listen, man, I…I'm so sorry."

"Go." Tetsuya said more forcefully.

"I didn't mean for it to happen, I swear! I caught 'em, red-fuckin'-handed, and I was gonna tell you right away, but…You know I had a crush on Tsuko for years when we were kids. I never confessed to her or nothin', so I never thought she knew, but she did an' she used it against me. One whole night, anythin' I wanted, that's what she offered me an' I took it. I'm sorry, I was weak."

"Go." Tetsuya growled out once more, but Shinnosuke kept going as if he hadn't heard it. He had two years worth of guilt to get off his chest.

"I thought it was the perfect situation, y'know? They weren't bein' that careful about it, so I figured you'd catch 'em soon anyway, just like I did. An' even if they tried to take me down with 'em, I'd just deny it an' you'd never take their word over mine. But I got conned, man! I woke up the next day with your brother standin' next to my bed, an' he told me that I had fucked up. I lost the high ground an' I was in just as deep as them. They had me on camera! They even kept the fuckin' condoms I used for DNA evidence so they could prove they weren't just framin' me with a clone. Who fuckin' does that?! I didn't have a choice, man!"

"There's always a choice, and you made yours." Tetsuya hissed through clenched teeth.

Neither man noticed that the entire station had gone completely silent around them, with every ninja in the building watching things unfold.

"It wasn't my fault! They took advantage of me, man! The bitch knew I wouldn't be able to resist her, an' your brother used his fuckin' ANBU mind-tricks to get me to go along with it afterwards. At first I was just supposed to keep quiet, but then they convinced me to join 'em, under the condition that I help them keep you in the dark. I knew it was wrong, man, but they got to me. I mean, I was already a part of it, right? Might as well get somethin' out of-"

Shinnosuke was interrupted one last time as Tetsuya's right hand shot up, grabbed the back of his head and smashed his face into the edge of the counter three times. It happened so fast that even the other ninjas around them were stunned.

"In for a penny, in for a pound, huh?! Is that how it is?!" the bald man roared as he threw his barely-conscious former friend to the floor.

Shinnosuke said nothing; he was too busy trying to cough up the teeth that had just been knocked down his throat.

Tetsuya snarled and moved to finish the job. But just as he kneeled over Shinnosuke and cocked back his right fist, he was shoved away and onto his back. Scrambling to his feet, he saw that he had been stopped by the youngest ninja in the building.

"Now is NOT the time for this bullshit!" Sasuke yelled, standing protectively over the now-unconscious Shinnosuke's body. The man may have been a piece of shit in the boy's book, having admitted to having a two-year affair with his own friend's wife, but Sasuke wasn't about to let someone else die when he could prevent it. "Haven't enough people died already? We don't need anyone adding to the body-count, especially one of our own!"

The Uchiha started to regret his decision when the bald man stared him down with narrowed eyes. He refused to back down, but that didn't mean he was keen on taking an ass-whooping for some backstabbing dickhead. He knew he was in no condition to effectively fight back, and he doubted anyone would help him.

There were many "unwritten rules" amongst ninjas, mostly applying to things that were technically illegal, or at the very least heavily frowned upon. One of the most well-known of them was that fights, provided they were non-destructive, were allowed to run their course no matter what. Even if the loser died, legal repercussions were rare. The general feeling was that if you picked a fight, you accepted the consequences, whatever they may be.

And by the same token, if you tried to interrupt a fight, you were then considered part of the fight and therefore deserved whatever happened to you.

So imagine his relief when Tetsuya straightened up, put his hands in the air and silently walked by, heading for the door.

Then imagine his horror when he heard the man whisper to himself, "In for a penny…".

Sasuke whirled around as fast as he could, only to see that Tetsuya firmly in the grasp of three ninjas, including the older man who'd been behind the counter.

"The boy's right, you need to calm yourself down." the old man said, his right hand wrapped around Tetsuya's neck while two other ninjas held his arms. "I know you're angry, son; hell, I'm angry for you. And I know that sack o' shit deserves what you wanna do to him. But right now we need him. We need everybody, understand? With any luck he'll die makin' himself useful, but if that don't happen, there will come a day when we don't need him no more. Get me?"

"…" Tetsuya said nothing, but allowed his body to relax.

"You done here?" the old man asked.

"…For now." Tetsuya replied, then left the station as soon as the three shinobi released him.

Once he was out of sight Sasuke sank down on the nearest stool. The adrenaline had started to wear off and his body was quick to remind him of just how exhausted it was.

"Good on ya', mate." the blonde-haired ninja who'd been holding Tetsuya's right arm said as he passed the Uchiha, giving him a pat on the shoulder.

The other gave him a nod before turning around and leaving the station himself. Looking around, Sasuke saw the gesture repeated by several other shinobi.

"Thanks, son." the old man said as he sat down on the stool next to Sasuke.

"For what?"

"For remindin' us that we need to stick together. I don't think a single one of us woulda done what you did. Not for him." the old man nodded towards Shinnosuke. "We were just gonna let it happen, like we always do. He shoulda seen it comin'; I don't know any man who WOULDN'T break someone's face for screwin' their woman, even if she was already sittin' on someone else's lap."

A call of "Damn straight!" went up from a corner of the station, drawing several murmurs and nods of agreement from men and women alike.

"But things have changed. Goddamn, have they changed, and the last thing we need is more infightin'. The village preaches about unity, well now's the time to put it to practice."

"Too fuckin' right." the blonde man who'd helped restrain Tetsuya agreed before downing the rest of his water bottle. "We'll have plenty of fighting to do soon enough, I guarantee you that."

The old man handed Sasuke five ration bars. "Here, you'll need your strength if you have to stop any more brawls." he chuckled.

"God, I hope not." the Uchiha groaned at the mere thought.

"I'd put money on it. Tensions are high, everyone's on edge, and all it takes is a spark. It was like this after the Kyuubi attack. Two guys are workin' next to each other, one of them cracks a bad joke to lighten the mood, and the next thing you know they're tryin' to stab one another."

"Oh, joy…" Sasuke muttered before tearing the wrapper from one of the ration bars and taking a bite, completely ignoring the taste. It was going to be a long day.

(Hokage's Office)

Hiruzen sat with his chair turned towards the windows of his office, looking out over the village. Most of the view was dominated by the Western sector, with the Hokage Monument dead center. He remembered a time when the office had windows all around, and was thankful that he had found it distracting and redesigned the room shortly after he first came into power. He had no desire to see to the North.

Then again, he didn't want to see the Monument, either.

"To think I chose this view to give me strength in tough times." he mumbled to himself. "It hardly helps when I'm the cause of those tough times." and that included this latest one.

Now that he'd had time to think about it and digest the facts, he realized that the whole disaster was his fault. Literally every event that led up to it was either because of something he did, or something he didn't do.

Because he let the whole village know about the Kyuubi being sealed inside Naruto, the Kurama clan was inspired to create a Jinchūriki of their own. If he had kept his mouth shut, things would have been different.

Because he was so concerned with keeping everyone content and cooperative, he turned a blind eye to the Kurama's more suspicious activities. If he'd had them monitored more closely, things would have been different.

Because he had taken Kurenai at her word, and once again let the Council walk all over him, Yakumo's fate was sealed. If he had overseen the investigation personally, or at least handed it to someone he knew he could trust, things would have been different.

"Will the past ever stop haunting me?" the Hokage wondered aloud. He knew the answer to that question was a resounding "no".

Why would it ever stop? Literally everything that had gone wrong in Konoha, going back all the way to the Third Shinobi War, could be traced back to him. Even Kyuubi's attack on the village. In the years since the event, Hiruzen had actually taken some twisted comfort in the fact that it was one of the few things he couldn't blame himself for. But then the demoness herself shattered that delusion when she revealed that it was Orochimaru, his single greatest failure, who brought her wrath down upon the people he vowed to protect.

Yes, the man who swore an oath to do all within his power to protect the village was responsible for the greatest disaster to ever befall it. And now, nearly thirteen years after having sworn that same oath a second time, he found himself responsible for the second greatest disaster in Konoha's history. And if one counted the Uchiha Massacre as the third, he was responsible for that as well.

And if that vision, which seemed like it had happened years ago, came to fruition, he would be responsible for the ultimate disaster by not taking Danzō out of the picture when he had the chance. Now it was too late. The man had dropped off the face of the Earth, and even the Black Ops couldn't turn up anything.

"I don't deserve to be here." Hiruzen slumped in his chair, averting his eyes away from the judgmental stares of the faces on the mountain, his own included. "I don't deserve the place in history I'll be given. I'm not the man who led Konoha through its most prosperous period; I'm the man who nearly destroyed it from the inside." the armrests of his chair creaked and cracked under the pressure of his grip. "But what can I do? I'm stuck here."

The village needed a leader, and there was no one he trusted to do it better than himself. The only people he would seriously consider as replacements, such as Kakashi, would bring far too much baggage with them. So he had no choice but to stay right where he was, as the false idol. Cursed to smile in the faces of the people who looked to him for solutions, never suspecting that he was the problem.

"And just like everything else, it's my own fault." the Sandaime grumbled. "Thirteen years and not once have I even attempted to find a viable replacement. Kept trying to fix everything myself, and look how THAT turned out."

One thing that he could do, however, was find someone to personally groom to take up the mantle of Fifth Hokage. He had spent far too long holding out hope that Tsunade or Jiraiya would one day decide to take on the responsibility, even though both had literally laughed at the idea at one time or another. It was time to accept that they were lost causes in that regard and move on. But in the meantime…

"Forgive me." Hiruzen said, suddenly feeling the almost alien stinging sensation in his eyes. The last time he had felt it, his wife's final words were still fresh in his ears. "I've brought so much shame to this title, and I fear that there is more to come…I know I'm asking for too much, but please…Please forgive me."

Hiruzen released a shuddering breath as he willed away a sob. He never noticed the portrait of the Yondaime Hokage looking in his direction with an expression of gut-wrenching sorrow. It was the face of a man who desperately wanted to help his friend, but was powerless to do so.

(Konoha General Hospital)

It had taken Naruto far longer than he'd liked to get his emotions under control again. Calling in some twenty clones from all around the hospital and raging at them for the lack of security in Anko's room helped, but only so much. Afterall, at the end of the day it was still just him being mad at himself.

And he still was. Mistakes were one thing, but the kinds of glaring errors he kept making were unacceptable. But at least his latest error had only resulted in a single casualty, and fortunately it was one he could do something about.

'I just have to wait for Kurohane to get back to me.'

Then, as if summoned by his thoughts, Naruto felt her presence enter the room. She appeared to him a second later, sporting a look that he didn't particularly like.

"I take it you've got bad news?"

"Sorry…" Kurohane rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly.

"What did Ren have to say?"

"He said your plan for the puppy won't work. Turns out that when a living thing without a Darkness affinity enters the Shadow Realm, their body doesn't go with them. It stays in a place between the dimensions where time stands still, while a perfect copy is made by the Shadow Realm itself and any consciousness the being has is put into that. But that's the only thing that goes in; chakra stays with the real body." Kurohane explained, inwardly hoping Naruto didn't ask why she didn't know that in the first place.(2)

"So repairing Akamaru's body there wouldn't do anything for him." Naruto grunted in frustration and finally stood up from his chair. "Of course it can't be that simple."

"Do you still want to go to the Shadow Realm?" Kurohane asked as she opened a portal using the shadow beneath Anko's bed.

"Yeah, I need to check up on things over there. Call it a hunch, but I think something might be going on."

And with that, they sank into the portal and disappeared.

For all of two seconds, before they were shot back out of the void with enough force to send them through the ceiling and halfway up to the next floor. They both came back down flat on their faces, too stunned to catch themselves.

"What the fuck was that?!" Naruto growled, picking himself up off the floor.

"I…I think we just got rejected." Kurohane replied, her face a mask of confusion. "Like we had Light affinities, or something."

"Well we don't, so what's the other explanation?" he didn't mean to be so short with her, but Naruto was just about done with the world's bullshit.

"Something is trying to get into your Shadow Realm from the outside, so now it's keeping everything out."

"Goddammit!" Naruto hissed. "If it's not one thing, it's another, and now it seems to be everything at once!"

"But it might not be too serious." Kurohane said hastily. "The boundaries between the Shadow Realms were put in place for a reason, and when someone messes with them Yoruyonaka looks into it personally."

"Oh, goodie." Naruto deadpanned.

"Come on, Naruto-kun," Kurohane cooed as she wrapped her arms around him from behind, "don't stress yourself out. I mean, this is a stressful situation…like, REALLY stressful, but…You know what I mean."

"You're almost as bad at comforting people as I am." Naruto chuckled despite his frustration. "I'm alright. This is far from the first time I've felt like the world is out to get me. I've been dealing with it all my life, and I'll deal with it now."

"Uh, that's the spirit?" Kurohane ventured.

"It's gotten me this far." Naruto grunted. "Well, since the Shadow Realm is out of the question for now, I guess you can do whatever you want. I'm staying here." he said as he sat back down in the visitor's chair next to Anko's bed. "You can stay, but I'm afraid I won't make for the best company. I've got a lot on my mind."

"I understand." Kurohane replied with a sympathetic smile. "I'll keep checking on the Shadow Realm situation. When I'm able to get through, I'll come get you." the Princess gave him an affectionate squeeze before letting go and turning around to leave, only to stop when he gently grabbed her right arm.

"Wait, Kurohane." Naruto said, turning her around to face him. "I never did thank you. I didn't even think about it when you said I passed out when we found Anko. You got her to the hospital; you saved her."

"Well of course I did. No way I was gonna leave her there." Kurohane said as she looked off to the side, trying and failing to hide the pink that had erupted on her cheeks. "We have to look out for each other, right?"

Naruto winced behind his mask. "Right. But thank you all the same. And don't bother coming to get me if you're able to get into the Shadow Realm. Just find Doc and bring him back to my place. I think he's still my best bet for fixing up Akamaru." something told him that the "good" Doctor had taken apart a few animals in his day, probably not for purely scientific reasons, and thus would likely know how to put one back together again.

"Consider it done." Kurohane nodded. As she made to leave the room in a more conventional way than she came in, and nearly jumped out of her skin when she opened the door and nearly walked into Mirano.

"Oh! Forgive me, I wasn't paying attention." the Doctor said.

"No, no, it's fine. That's what I get for using the door when I don't have to." Kurohane replied, stepping aside to let Mirano in. She then walked right through the wall next to the door and out into the corridor.

Her initial plan was to get back out to the Northern Sector, where her ability to sense souls would allow her to find survivors. In theory, anyway; she had yet to actually find even one. But the more she thought about it, the more she found herself trying to come up with any kind of alternative.

She'd spent most of the night helping out, and felt she deserved a break. It wasn't particularly tiring work, just depressing. Kurohane was no stranger to death; she owed her very existence to it. But knowing how those people had died affected her far more than she was comfortable with.

"I got it; I'll go check on the sisters!" Kurohane grinned and set off for her destination at a leisurely pace. Afterall, what's the point of procrastinating if you're going to be quick about it?

But even with her taking her time, it still only took her six and a half minutes to reach room 240. However, when she opened the door she found the room occupied by two patients who most definitely weren't the Orasu sisters.

"They're back home."

To her credit, Kurohane only jumped about two feet in the air.

"I swear, you all do that on purpose!" she turned around to glare at one of Naruto's clones. She had lost count of the number of times they had snuck up on her in the past twelve hours alone.

"Not anymore." the clone replied. "It's too easy; you don't pay enough attention to your surroundings, and rely too much on sensing souls."

"Okay, so that's something I need to work on. I'll add it to the list. Now what happened to Chigusa and Kiriko?"

"They are still resting, but their injuries are healed. They didn't need to be here, so they were taken home to recover, and to free up the room for patients who do need to be here."

"I see. Well, thanks for letting me know."

"No problem." the clone nodded, then went back to…whatever it was doing.

"Guess I'll head home, then." Kurohane mumbled to herself, then took on her "ghost" form to phase through the floor and down to the first level.

However, she had no idea of the layout of the hospital and found herself dropping into an operating room. While anyone else would've seen an immaculately clean room, Kurohane instantly knew different. They could sanitize as much as they wanted, but they couldn't hide what they didn't know about, and they didn't know about the telltale residual energy left behind when a soul was released from its body.

'It's fresh.' Kurohane thought. 'Very fresh.' just minutes ago, someone had died right there on the operating table.

Once again the Princess was struck by how it affected her. She had no idea who had died or how, but all she could think about was someone who, against all odds, had survived the attack, only to lose their life after the fact. It was so…unfair.

Kurohane was reminded of a day some two weeks ago when she was hanging out in Haku's apartment, watching TV while the girl was pouring over her numerous cookbooks. She saw a video tribute dedicated to the late creator of a long-running anime series. A beloved artist who had brought so much joy to people across the Elemental Nations, struck down in his prime by, of all things, a severe allergic reaction to medication during a routine medical procedure. It was so bizarre that foul play was immediately suspected. It had happened too fast to just be allergies; it was more like poison. But nothing was ever found, and his death was ruled as a freak accident. An act of the Gods.(3)

Kurohane didn't discount that possibility, but she still thought his sudden death was more than a little unfair and said as much. Zabuza had been stretched out on the couch reading some novel and, in typical Zabuza fashion, merely shrugged and said, "Life's not fair; why should death be any different?"

He was right, of course. Life wasn't fair, and death really wasn't any different. That had always been the case, but never had it gotten under her skin like it did now. It made her want to do something. To help out somehow. But what could she really do?

With a deep, melancholy sigh, Kurohane made her way out of the operating room and into the corridor outside. From there, she followed the signs on the walls to the double doors that led to the lobby.

But just as she reached the doors and prepared to walk through them, they swung open and a middle-aged man in a lab coat walked through. He was so close that Kurohane couldn't avoid him and he ended up walking right through her immaterial form.

"The hell?" the man stopped in his tracks and looked around as his entire body visibly shivered.

Kurohane was tempted to say "sorry", but chose to keep quiet and keep moving. Hopefully there had been enough ghosts roaming the hospital that things like that were a not-uncommon experience and wouldn't arouse too much suspicion.

However, as soon as she cleared the doors, the Spirit Beast stopped. There, sitting in one of the chairs outside the E.R. doors was a woman with dark green hair who looked downright catatonic. Completely still, eyes wide open and red from crying, with tears still streaming down her cheeks. But it wasn't her Kurohane focused on; it was the male ghost sitting in the chair at the woman's right.

He was fully-formed, clearly visible and conscious; all signs of a strong soul.

Before she could do anything, the ghost suddenly locked eyes with her. His posture stiffened a bit, but beyond that he showed no real reaction to her presence.

"Who are you?" he asked, obviously wary of her. Not that she could blame him; as a creature that fed on souls, she was probably giving him all kinds of bad vibes just by being so close.

"Name's Kurohane. You?"

"…Takeda." the ghost replied after a brief pause.

Kurohane got the impression that it wasn't his real name, but didn't press the issue.

"Do you know what you are?" she asked. She didn't have Collector training, but she still knew that the first step in getting a spirit to cooperate with you was to get them to acknowledge and accept that they were dead.

"I'm a ghost. Duh."

Kurohane's left eyebrow twitched ever so slightly. "…Do you know how you died?"

"Mm-hm. During the attack, I got separated from my wife, Nami," the ghost nodded towards the woman he was sitting next to, "in all the chaos. I went looking for her, but only found a ninja who'd gone off the deep end. He beat the hell out of me and left me for dead. I crawled into a nearby house and passed out. Woke up just this morning, found the place had been wrecked, but the rubble had fallen in such a way that it shielded me. Must've taken me a good two hours to dig my way out. But just as I was pulling myself out, something shifted the wrong way and the whole pile collapsed in on itself. Ended up crushing everything below my waist and damn near cut me in half. Someone must've found me pretty soon after that, because I was still alive when I got here. But next thing I know, I'm in an operating room, watching a group of doctors and nurses kicking themselves for not being able to save me. I followed one of them out here, the guy who just went back into the E.R., he told my wife the bad news, then you showed up and now here we are."

The black-clad woman was momentarily thrown for a loop by the spirit's nonchalance. "You're taking this surprisingly well."

The ghost shrugged. "I've never been one to cry over spilled milk. I'm dead and there's nothing I can do about it, so what's the point in screaming and hollering, shaking my fist at God and all that other shit? I'm just worried about Nami. She's…not made to be by herself."

Despite his words, the ghost didn't look particularly worried about anyone or anything. But before Kurohane could think too much on it, she got an idea. A wondrous, life-changing idea!

'I can be a Medium!' she thought excitedly. It was perfect! She could relay messages from the dead to the living, providing closure for the latter and helping the former pass on willingly all at once! In fact, she could go even further. With her powers, she wasn't limited to being a mere messenger; she could let the ghosts physically manifest themselves to speak to their loved ones in-person! 'Why didn't I think of this before?'

"Hey, Takeda." Kurohane said, getting the spirit's attention. "Is there anything you'd like to say to her?"

"Well, yeah. A lot of things, actually."

"Alrighty then!" Kurohane chirped. She was so excited that she didn't take the time to check her surroundings before taking her physical form. Fortunately, since it was a hospital that was used by ninjas and run by ninjas, a woman suddenly appearing out of nowhere wasn't an uncommon sight, so no one really thought anything of it.

In fact, even the woman Kurohane had appeared in front of didn't seem to think anything of it. She didn't even seem to notice that she had company, even when Kurohane sat down in the chair to her left.

"Excuse me, ma'am?" Kurohane said softly, not wanting to startle the woman.

"Huh? Wha?" Nami blinked and looked around for a moment, like she didn't know where she was. "Who are you?" she asked when her eyes finally landed on the…uncomfortably attractive stranger next to her.

"I'm Kurohane."

"…Do you need something, Kurohane-san?" Nami inquired, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her red shirt.

"I was going to ask you that, Na-actually." Kurohane mentally kicked herself for nearly using the woman's name. "I saw you sitting here looking so…out of it. I just wanted to see if you were alright."

"Oh…Well, thank you for caring." Nami said with a sniffle. "I wish that Doctor had been so compassionate. He tried to pretend he was sorry, but I could tell that he didn't mean it. I don't think any of them ever do, unless it's someone they know personally." she frowned. "Not being able to save Hiro was just a blow to his own ego; he didn't care about my loss."

"Hiro was…" Kurohane pressed gently.

"My husband." with those two words, something clicked in the Princess' head and she mentally pulled back.

It wasn't the words themselves, but the space in between them. Nami had hesitated to call Hiro her husband.

'Something's rotten in Konoha.' Kurohane thought.

With her enthusiasm now thoroughly dampened, she was able to truly take stock of the situation, and it was obvious that something was off.

Despite the state in which Kurohane had stumbled upon her, Nami didn't appear to be all that broken up about her husband's death. And when Kurohane glanced at Hiro's ghost, she found him leering at her, his eyes blatantly traveling up and down her body, but never going higher than her chest. Hardly the behavior of a man who was supposedly worried about how his widowed wife would get by without him.

"Oh…I'm sorry for your loss." Kurohane said.

"It's weird…It feels like a dream, but…this is real, isn't it? He's really gone." the corners of the woman's mouth twitched upwards. "I'm really free."

"What?"

Nami gave her companion an odd look, furrowing her brow and biting her lip. Then, after several seconds of mental deliberation, she made a decision.

"I know I must sound like an awful person. I was raised to believe that marriage was forever, and that a wife should stick by her man no matter what." Nami's voice wavered as raw emotion began to break through her somewhat calm façade. "Well I fulfilled that obligation; I stuck by him. Through all the lies, the yelling, the insults and that desperate need for control, I stuck by him for fourteen years! But now he's gone, and for the first time my life is MY life."

"No! No, she's lying!" Hiro screamed, but Kurohane ignored him.

"I've never been allowed to do anything on my own." Nami seethed, totally oblivious to the spirit crying out in impotent rage just inches away from her. "Every decision that ever mattered was made for me, either by my parents or by Hiro. I didn't even get a say in my own hairstyle! This," she angrily pointed at her bob cut, "is what HE wanted. He even decided we wouldn't have kids. Dammit, I want kids! But what I wanted never mattered. I never mattered." when she finally smiled, it bordered on malicious. "But I do now."

"The hell you do!" Hiro spat through clenched teeth. "You're weak and you always will be! Your 'freedom' won't last long, because you won't know what to do with it. You NEED someone to tell you what to do, otherwise you're fucking useless!" of course, his ranting went unheard by his former wife.

Kurohane's right eyebrow twitched, but she didn't acknowledge the spirit.

"Everyone deserves to make their own choices." she said, placing a hand on Nami's left shoulder. "In fact, that's why I'm here in Konoha. I came to get out from under my father and go my own way."

"Good for you." Nami flashed a genuine smile. "I wish I'd had the guts to do that at your age. Instead I fell in-line like a good little girl and got married to the first guy my parents picked for me. Now here I am, thirty-two years old and just now starting my life."

'Thirty-two years? Please. Try just now getting out on your own after NINETY-two years.' Kurohane constantly had to remind herself that humans were very short-lived creatures compared to beings like herself. Hearing them talk about piddly stretches of time as if they were significant almost always made her scoff.

Her thoughts were soon derailed when Hiro started raving again.

"You lucked out with me, you walking doormat, and you'll never have it so good again! You'll be a magnet for predators, and you'll seek them out because you have a desperate need to BE controlled. They'll pass you around and use you until there's nothing left, and you'll let them because that's who you are! You're a sheep who will ALWAYS need a shepherd! And one day someone's gonna walk you right off a cliff, and I'll be there, laughing at you all the way down!"

Kurohane did her best not to let her irritation show, lest Nami think she was the cause.

"Do you have anyone you trust to help you?" she asked. "You know what they say, old habits die hard. You may need friends to keep you from falling into someone else's trap and trading one scumbag for another."

Nami smiled again. "Despite Hiro and my parents' best efforts, I've made some friends along the way."

"You want one more?" Kurohane grinned.

Nami froze for a moment. Then, with fresh tears in her eyes, she caught Kurohane in a tight embrace.

"Thank you, Kurohane…Oh!" she suddenly pulled back and clapped her hands over her mouth. "Oh, Kami, I've been so rude! You told me your name and I…I'm Nami. Tsuki…No. Just Nami."

"You wanna go get something to eat, Nami? My treat." Kurohane offered as she stood up.

"…I think I'd like that." Nami replied as she also stood up. She couldn't help but notice that Kurohane was a very tall woman; Nami only came up to her chest. "But I think I should clean up a little first." she said, gesturing to her red, puffy eyes and tear-streaked face.

"I'll wait for you." Kurohane smiled as she watched the green-haired woman make her way to the restrooms. That smile turned into a deep frown when she noticed Hiro stalking passed her. Quickly shifting to her immaterial form, she got in front of him and glared. "And just where do you think you're going?"

"Fuck off, you useless cunt!" Hiro snarled. "I thought you were gonna help me, but you just fucked everything up. And now I'm gonna fuck her up! Once I figure out this ghost thing, we'll see how uppity she is after a little paranormal activity!" he cackled, then made to go around Kurohane, only to have her grab his left arm as he went by and stop him in his tracks. "The fuck? You can touch me?"

"Oh, I can do a lot more than that; I've got this ghost thing figured out." Kurohane hissed. "You squandered your life abusing that poor woman instead of loving her like a husband should. Now you think you're going to spend your afterlife doing the same? No. She's done with you. And you're just plain done."

"What're y-!" Hiro's challenge was cut-off by Kurohane palming his face. As soon as the contact was made, he could feel himself being torn apart. Nothing in his life could prepare him for the agony being inflicted upon him now. All he could do was scream. And scream he did. "GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!"

Seconds later, all that remained was a small, glowing blue sphere, about the size of a gumball, in Kurohane's hand. Hiro's soul, the remnants of his very existence, compressed into a tiny, bite-sized little morsel that the Spirit Beast popped into her mouth without a second thought. She didn't know if he would be able to feel her chewing on him, but she took her time anyway.

Taking her physical form once again, Kurohane made her way to the lobby to await her new friend. As she sat down, she couldn't stop smiling. She felt good; incredible, even! Hiro's soul barely qualified as a snack, but for the first time in a while, she felt like she had really DONE something.

Maybe she could help make the human world a better place.

(Konoha – Northern Sector)

Kakashi wasn't someone who asked much of his coworkers. As long as they did their jobs, he rarely criticized unless they did something stupid. But right now he was in a criticizing mood, because he had found himself around the center of the Northern sector, in an area that looked like it was untouched by the recovery efforts. No paths had been cleared through the wreckage, and in just five minutes he had already found eleven bodies in plain sight.

He knew that most of the work was being done further North in the more heavily damaged areas, but there still should've been search parties looking for survivors all around.

'What, am I the only optimist left?' Kakashi thought wryly. It had been deduced that the illusion was a death sentence for anyone who wasn't freed from it. If they survived phase one, phase two would either drain them of every drop of chakra, or they would be the first victim of whatever vile creature was conjured from their mind. A ruthlessly efficient system.

But survivors had been found, showing that it was possible. So why did it seem like no one else was out looking for them?

Another ten minutes of searching yielded thirty-one more bodies, for a total of forty-two. Some were completely intact, but most were mangled, crushed and/or burned, often beyond recognition. The hospital staff would have their work cut out for them identifying the dead.

'Speaking of which, I should check on Sakura after I'm d-!' Kakashi's train of thought was completely derailed by what he saw as he turned a corner.

It was a brown-haired young woman in a yellow sundress, a civilian judging from the way she moved, walking down the street. She was slightly hunched over, looking around uncomprehendingly with her arms wrapped around herself.

"Hey, Miss, are you alright?" Kakashi called out as he jogged up to her. When she turned to face him, he could clearly make out the twin trails of tears flowing down her cheeks. He had to suppress his combat reflexes when she suddenly ran at him.

"Please, you have to help me!" the woman cried, nearly plowing into him in her desperation.

"Are you alright?" Kakashi repeated, noticing a tiny speck of blood around the right corner of her mouth. Though he had to say, aside from that she looked no worse for wear.

"It's not me, it's my little sister! We were going to get something to eat and then…I don't know, I must have blacked out or something, because I woke up to find…THIS!" she gestured wildly to the ruins all around them. "And my sister's gone! I've been looking for hours and I can't find her, and no one will help me!"

"What do you mean 'no one will help'?"

"Exactly what I said!" the woman all but snarled in the Sharingan wielder's face. "I've seen DOZENS of ninjas and they keep ignoring me! I've screamed at them until my throat was raw, but they never stopped! Some of them even looked right at me and kept going!"

"Please calm down, Miss. Forget about them; I'm here now and I will help you. Where do you think your sister would have gone?" Kakashi wasn't about to tell the poor girl that her little sister was almost certainly dead, since it was nothing short of a miracle that she had survived herself.

"If I knew that, I wouldn't need your help!" the young lady growled. "And my name is Yayoi, not 'Miss'."

"Okay, okay. And your sister's name?"

"Misato."

"Alright…You wouldn't happen to ha-!" Kakashi stopped in his tracks when a chill ran up his spine and the hairs on his neck stood on-end. He was being watched by someone or something. "Who's there?" he demanded, scanning the area for potential threats. "Show yourself. Now!"

Several seconds passed without so much as a twitch of movement anywhere; even the air seemed to be eerily still.

"Yayoi-san, I think it's time to…" Kakashi trailed off when he saw that he was alone again. "Yayoi-san?" he called out, but there was no answer. Where could she have gone so quickly? And how did she manage to do it totally unnoticed?

The silver-haired Jōnin spent the next five minutes searching high and low for the young woman, inadvertently finding six more bodies. Thankfully none of them were little girls.

"Dammit, how could I lose her like that?" he grumbled to himself. Then, from the corner of his right eye, he spotted movement. He turned his head just in time to catch a glimpse of something darting down a street some fifty yards away. "Yayoi-san?"

When he rounded the corner, sure enough there was Yayoi. Pinned to the ground under a huge pile of rubble, her yellow sundress stained red along with the dirt beneath her.

"What the fuck?" Kakashi whispered as he walked up to the corpse. He could tell just from looking at her that she had been dead for hours.

"There you are, you son of a bitch!" Kakashi whirled around to see…Yayoi, alive and well, storming up to him with a look of indignant fury on her face. "You're no better than those other assholes! You say you're gonna help me, then you ignore me and make me chase you around! What the hell is your problem?!"

Kakashi could only stare in slack-jawed disbelief and more than a little fear. He looked back to confirm that the corpse was still there, and it was. How the hell was this possible?! This girl was laying dead on the ground just inches behind him, yet somehow she was also right in front of him nearly pristine.

Then he remembered his talk with Ren after he had been brought back from Limbo. The foul-mouthed "Spirit Beast" had told him that since his soul had survived direct contact with one of his kind, he was "Touched" now. And one of the "perks" of being Touched was the ability to see all things spiritual, which of course included…

"Holy shit, you're a ghost." Kakashi breathed out, unaware that he had said it aloud.

"What are you babbling about n…" Yayoi's words died in her throat when her eyes landed on the sight at the ninja's feet. "That…That's me…Why is that me?"

"Y-Yayoi-sa-"

"No, that's not me. That can't be me! I'm not dead; I'm right here! I'm…" the girl paused and looked at her arms. They were losing color, becoming paler and paler until they matched the corpse. At the same time a patch of red bloomed on her dress around the abdomen, rapidly spreading until it stained the entire front, at which point the blood began streaming down her legs and pooling at her feet. "Nononononononono…"

"Oh, God…" Kakashi took an involuntary step back, nearly tripping over the body behind him.

"You! You're doing this; you're making me see this!" Yayoi shrieked, somehow managing to speak clearly even when blood started pouring from her mouth.

"Yayoi-san, please-" Kakashi reached out a hand, only to have her recoil away as if he were made of fire.

"Get away from me, you monster! I just wanted your help and this is what I get?! I hate you! I HATE YOU!" the final scream hit the Jōnin like a train, bringing him to his knees and making his vision to fade in and out.

But it wasn't the noise itself that did the most damage. It was something else, something beyond physical that seemed to temporarily disrupt his entire being. It was like his very molecules had been knocked out of place and were bouncing all around, trying to reassemble themselves.

By the time Kakashi recovered, the ghost was long gone, leaving no evidence that it had ever been there. He got to his feet slowly, still shaken by the experience.

"Is this my life now? Like I don't have enough to deal with already?" he groaned.

"Sucks, don't it?"

"GAH!" Kakashi yelped, then looked up to see one of Naruto's clones standing on a rooftop across the street.

"That feeling, like you only exist so that some higher being can fuck with you? Yeah, that's a bitch and a half."

"Goddammit, don't do that!"

"Do what? You're the one not paying attention to his surroundings." the clone pointed out before jumping from the roof and walking over to the Jōnin. "Hm, poor girl." it said, looking at Yayoi's body.

"…" Kakashi said nothing, instead silently staring into glassy, lifeless eyes that had most certainly been closed the last time he'd looked at her.

"Well let's hurry this up. Looks like no one's been through here but you, so we've got a lot more work to do." the clone then started clearing debris away from the body.

"…Yeah, let's hurry up…" Kakashi felt himself begin to sweat as he went to work. He swore the dead girl's eyes were following him.

(Konoha General Hospital)

"What do you think will happen with the Chūnin Exams? We can't cancel them without looking like cowards, but then letting all those people waltz right in is just asking for trouble…" Naruto paused, but Anko didn't respond. "…You're a proctor this year, right? That should be fun…" nothing. "…I don't think I'll bother with getting a seller's permit this year. I don't need the money. Haven't for a while…" no joy. "I feel like an idiot." the young hanyō sighed, running a hand through his hair.

He remembered reading an article written by a man who had been in a coma for a year and described it as being trapped in his own mind. Conscious, but "disconnected". He said he had used the voices of friends and family speaking to him as a beacon to find his way out. At the time Naruto wrote it off as sensational nonsense, having been in a few comas of his own. But he was willing to try anything if it meant getting Anko back.

So for the past hour he had been chatting away, rambling on about whatever popped into his head. Hoping that she would awaken if only to tell him to shut up and let her sleep.

'But of course it can't be that easy.' he thought bitterly. But before he could go on a mental tirade about how it seemed like he only existed for some higher being to fuck with him, there was a knock at the door.

He never cared to find out before, but apparently doors were such a common casualty in the hospital that all of the patient room door hinges were attached to the frames with screws that were designed to break off under sufficient force. This kept the frame from being damaged, so they only had to replace the door. Once everything had settled down after Naruto's "encounter" with the unlucky Medic, a replacement door was brought up and installed in seconds.

"Naruto-kun?" came Hinata's voice from the other side of the door.

"Come in, Hinata." Naruto replied. The door opened and he saw that she wasn't alone. "Hey, Shino."

"Naruto-san." the Aburame heir nodded back.

"How is she?" Hinata asked, walking over to the other side of her fallen sensei's bed.

"No change."

"Do…Do you think she'll come back?" Hinata felt herself tearing up at the mere thought of Anko not pulling through.

"I don't think that's a question; she WILL wake up. I'm more concerned about who she'll be when she does."

Hinata cocked her head to the side in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"I think you know as well as I do how traumatic events can change people, Hinata."

The heiress' face actually lost a bit of color; she hadn't thought of that before. And she didn't want to think about it now.

"Naruto-san, how long have you been in here?" Shino inquired before the conversation could go any further.

Knowing an out when he saw one, Naruto took the opportunity with a subtle nod to the other boy. If he hadn't meant to say that to Hinata to begin with, it just came out before he could think better of it.

"Since around 9:30." he answered, getting up from his chair to stretch.

"No breaks?"

"No breaks."

"I can take over!" Hinata burst out. "I mean…if you want…"

Naruto made to decline the offer, but then noticed the look Shino was giving him. "If it's not too much trouble. I am kind of hungry."

"Oh, it's no trouble!" Hinata said quickly. "I was only here to visit Kiba-kun and Anko-sensei before I went back out."

"And you?" Naruto turned to Shino.

"I still have a few more injured relatives to visit before I leave, so I won't be staying long."

"Alright, then I'll see you later. I shouldn't be long, Hinata; twenty minutes, tops." as he walked by, Naruto felt Shino's left hand touch his own for a split second. Neither gave any indication that they noticed the contact.

Once he was outside the door, Naruto looked at his hand to find a small beetle sitting on his thumb. Once the insect saw that it had been noticed, it took flight and hovered in front of the boy's face for a second, then flew off down the hall about ten feet before stopping. Naruto glanced at the door one last time before following the bug.

It led him all the way to the other side of the building, the West Wing, before finally landing on patient room 225. Naruto knocked on the door and the beetle, its task complete, made its way back home.

"Come in."

"Tsume-san." Naruto greeted the woman with a respectful bow as he entered the room.

"Naruto." the Inuzuka matriarch nodded back. "Shino told me that you've got a plan to bring Akamaru back, and I need to know every detail of that plan."

"Should we be discussing this here?" Naruto asked, nodding towards Kiba's comatose form.

"He won't be waking up until I give the okay, but I can't do that until I decide what to do about this situation."

"Very well." Naruto proceeded to give Tsume and…"edited" version of what he was going to do. Truthful enough to say that he technically wasn't lying to her, but keeping out the things that would make him sound like the next Orochimaru.

"…And you're sure you can do it?" Tsume asked after taking a moment to digest what she'd heard.

"Mostly. I've only done it once before, and while it was a success, by the time I put the soul back in it had decayed too much. The previous personality was gone, almost like a blank slate. But this time I've got help in that area, so the only thing I have to worry about is brain damage. No one knows how long Akamaru's been dead, and thus how long his brain has been without oxygen. I can make sure there's no further damage, but I can't reverse what's already happened. And I won't even know that until after I bring him back and run some tests. I CAN bring him back, I'm sure of that. But whether or not he'll be able to resume active duty alongside your son…" Naruto had to physically stop himself from shrugging.

While he regarded Kiba as little more than an irritating loudmouth, Tsume had been on his side from the beginning. Aside from keeping Hinata from suffering a mental breakdown, repaying Tsume's kindness throughout the years was Naruto's biggest reason for volunteering his services. So he felt he needed to avoid anything that would trivialize things, be it words or gestures.

"…How long do you think it will take?" Tsume asked, her mind clearly going a thousand miles a minute as she stared at her son.

"I could have Akamaru's body patched up within a day; it's the tests that will be the most time consuming." Naruto replied. "Aside from making sure his cognitive abilities are intact, I'd want to keep him for a few days for observation. To see how he handles everyday life. I could deliver him to you tomorrow, but then what if something happens next week and he flips out? I just want to be thorough. I feel like returning him to you…defective would be worse than not returning him at all."

"I get it. Even if everything goes smoothly, Kiba will be in a fragile state of mind for a while. It's his first time experiencing something like this. My son talks a good game, but you of all people should know that's all it is: talk. Up 'til now the most traumatic thing he ever went through was his chickenshit father running away, and that wasn't exactly the greatest loss for either of us." Tsume grumbled something under her breath, which Naruto's keen ears picked up as, "Fucking beta-male bastard".

"So I have your approval?"

"Yeah, you have my approval. In the meantime, Kiba will stay under until it's done. How many people know what happened besides you, Shino and Yūhi?"

"Only Anko, as far as I know. She hasn't woken up yet, but I'll fill her in when she does, so the secret will be safe with her."

"But will it be safe with Yūhi?" it was mostly a rhetorical question, as Tsume no longer trusted the younger woman with anything pertaining to her son.

"I'll see to her personally." Naruto took note of Tsume's stern, disapproving look. "Not like that." he then rolled his eyes when her lips upturned and she gave a little eyebrow wiggle. "And sure as hell not like THAT, either. I have standards, you know."

"You're twelve." Tsume chortled, only to be silenced when Naruto turned to her with a deadpan stare that she could feel from behind his mask. "Oh…Wow, um…Okay, good for you!" she flashed a thumbs-up, doing her best to ignore the slight heat in her cheeks.

"Thanks."

"…It wasn't Hana, was it?" the wild-looking woman blurted out after several incredibly awkward seconds.

"What?" Naruto replied dumbly, completely blindsided by the question.

"It's just that she went through a…a phase a while ago, and I'm not totally sure she ever grew out of it…" Tsume started looking everywhere but in Naruto's direction. "She's kinda the black sheep of the clan and I try to be supportive of her independence and individuality and all that, but…I found some stuff in her room one day, and there was a diary…"

"No," Naruto cut in to avoid further embarrassment, "Hana-san and I have never done anything."

"Okay, alright, that's good. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for her having some fun, maybe getting a boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever, but…You know what? Let's just forget I said anything."

"Forgotten. But there is one last order of business."

"Right, Hinata." Tsume didn't need to be told why the girl needed to be kept in the dark. Not twenty minutes ago the heiress had literally gotten on her knees and bowed as low as she could, with her forehead touching the floor, taking responsibility for what happened to Kiba and begging for forgiveness.

Tsume ended up having to physically pick Hinata up to get her to stop spewing out apologies, which got more and more incoherent as she sobbed uncontrollably. Just thinking about how she would react to Akamaru's death was enough to make Tsume grimace.

"I assume Shino has told you the story he gave Hinata?"

"Yeah, it's pretty solid, but there's still the issue of her wanting to see Akamaru. If she weren't a Hyūga this would be so much simpler." Tsume sighed. "I've got a couple of pups who could easily pass as Akamaru, but if she activated those eyes of hers she'd instantly know it wasn't him."

"Same reason I can't make a clone of him; she'd recognize my chakra in a heartbeat." Naruto added.

"Okay…So the only option is to keep her from seeing him at all. But that's such a shitty thing to do…" Tsume got up from her chair and started pacing at the side of Kiba's bed. "God, the only way I could justify that would be to act like I'm mad at her for getting Akamaru hurt to begin with. There's no way in hell I'm doing that to her!"

Naruto very nearly responded with, "I'd kill you if you did", but caught himself. This wasn't Kurenai he was talking to. Then, an idea came to him.

"Tsume-san, do you have any kind of clan-exclusive medical facility? Something off-limits to the public?" he asked.

"Not really, no. Hana's got her little private 'clinic' within the compound, which you know all about," Tsume gave the boy a very pointed stare, "but she uses it more for storage than anything else these days."

"Does Hinata know that?"

"I'd have to ask Hana if she's said anything, but I don't think so." the woman furrowed her brow in thought, then nodded to herself. "It's a hell of a lot better than any other options I can see right now, so we'll go with it and adapt as needed."

"Great. I would also suggest having an Akamaru stand-in to keep the rest of your clan from suspecting anything. I'd rather have as few people in on this as possible."

"Absolutely. The last thing we need is for Hinata, or God forbid Kiba himself to overhear someone talking about it later on."

"Well, now that I have the go-ahead, I'll get started. You have my word, I WILL bring Akamaru back."

Tsume didn't respond for several seconds, instead just standing there with an odd look on her face. Then, without warning, she stepped forward and caught the masked Genin in a tight hug.

"Thank you, Naruto." she said lowly, her voice trembling ever so slightly. "I know you and my son aren't friends, never have been and probably never will be. But you're still doing this, and even if it's really for Hinata's sake, we owe you big time for this."

Naruto hesitated in returning the embrace, partly because of sheer surprise, and partly because the close contact reminded him of several dreams he'd had involving the older woman after Kyuubi had awakened his libido. But he eventually did bring his right arm up to rest loosely across the small of her back.

"It's not just Hinata. You fought for me when the Council tried to have their way, and of the few fond memories I have of my childhood, Hana-san was a big part of many of them. I've owed you for years, and now I finally get the chance to repay you."

Tsume smiled and tried to blink away the tears, but to no avail. She continued to hold the boy in her arms, taking his lack of protest as consent. This was a long time coming for her. She couldn't count the number of times she had wanted to give Naruto a hug in the past, if only to show him what positive human contact felt like. She even told Hana to give him hugs for her when she took on the role of leader in their little wannabe ninja cell.

But only once had she ever gotten the chance to do it, and it hadn't gone well. His entire body had gone stiff as a board and he was on the verge of hyperventilating, even though she had been as gentle as possible. His heartbeat thundered in her sensitive ears, and she'd even felt it jackhammering inside his chest when she pulled him close. She quickly let him go, genuinely fearing that his heart would explode, and he'd scampered off as soon as he realized he was free.

Oh, how it had made her own heart hurt upon seeing that his conditioned response to being approached by an adult was to fear for his life.

Naruto remembered that first and, until now, only physical encounter as well. He'd wanted to apologize to Tsume for being rude, but terror always overrode any desire to mind his manners.

"So, is this hugging stuff a thing now? Because it feels like it's becoming a thing." Nightmare chimed in, tactful as ever.

'Shut up.'

(Three Days Later, 9:45am)

While most were eager for the ninjas who had been away to return, there were many who dreaded it. Just when people were starting to come to grips with what had happened, there would be thousands coming back from all over Fire Country, most of whom would have no idea what they would be coming back to.

When they did start to return, it was just as many had feared. The hysteria started all over again. Women who left as wives, came back as widows. Men who had left as fathers, returned to find out that they would never see their child's smiling face again. Kids who had said goodbye to their parents just days ago, came back as orphans.

And no one could tell them why.

It was torture for the few people who actually knew. They were all under strict orders to stick to the official story that the investigation was ongoing, and every day it got harder to obey those orders. Even if they were used to withholding information and flatout lying, it still made them feel like complete heels when they lied to their own friends and family.

The truth did get out to some select individuals; mostly those who were high enough on the food chain to be briefed. But there were also those fortunate enough to be close to someone who didn't much care about orders and "official" stories.

Fortunately for Zabuza Momochi, he was one such individual.

"Hey, Naruto, you in there? Open up!" the former Swordsman of the Mist said as he pounded on the door to the boy's apartment.

He had just gotten back from his solo mission, and had known something was wrong as soon as he got close to the main gates. Where there were normally only two visible guards, there had dozen, each one watching him like a hawk even when they let him through.

Even the greenest of shinobi knew that when security was tightened, it was nothing but bad news. But nothing could have prepared Zabuza for just how bad the news was. Someone actually had the balls to attack Konoha?! As insane as the Third and Fourth Mizukages were, even they hadn't been THAT crazy.

Upon learning of the sheer scale of the attack, Zabuza's feet barely touched the ground as he made a mad dash for building he and his crew called home. He knew Naruto would have at least some answers, if not all of them. While the general populace regarded him with equal parts contempt and fear, Zabuza quickly learned that Naruto had friends in high places. There was no other explanation for some of the things the boy knew and the things he got away with.

How else do you explain a Genin getting the Hokage himself to almost immediately sign off on a group of international criminals joining Konoha's military ranks?

"Dammit, kid, I am NOT in the mood for games right now! If you're in there, open the damn door!" Zabuza had half a mind to bash the door in, but he remembered what Naruto's traps could do, not to mention the masked terror himself.

"Keep your fucking panties on, jackass! I'm moving as fast as I feel like." came the reply from inside the apartment. Apparently Zabuza wasn't the only one in a not-so-good mood. "What?" Naruto grunted irritably as he yanked the door open.

"You know what happened while I was gone?" Zabuza asked. "I mean the real story, not what everyone else is being told."

"Of course I do."

"And I'm guessing you're under orders not to say anything?"

"Of course I am."

"I'm also guessing you've made exceptions to those orders?"

"Of course I have." Naruto stepped aside to let him in.

Zabuza rose a non-existent eyebrow when he saw Naruto poke his head out of the door to look around before closing it, but chose not to comment on it.

"So what's the deal?" he asked. "The village was attacked, that much is clear, but there has to be more to it than that."

"Tch, if only it had been that simple." Naruto scoffed, then filled Zabuza in on what happened while he was gone.

He thought about leaving Haku's ordeal out of it, seeing as how it wasn't his story to tell. But he felt that Zabuza, more than anyone else, had a right to know. Plus, it would help if he had the facts before he talked to her, just in case she decided to bottle things up and downplay her feelings.

"If this isn't a clusterfuck, I don't know what is." Zabuza groaned.

"Mm." Naruto grunted in agreement. "Are you going to speak to Haku?"

"Yeah, but I have to go debrief first. I came straight here as soon as I got through the gates. Are you going somewhere?"

"I need to get back to the hospital; I just came back here to check up on a project downstairs." while he knew Zabuza would never tell anyone, he had no intention of expanding the loop. So far only five other people knew about his "project", and even that sometimes felt like a few too many.

"Who's at the hospital?" Zabuza asked, though he already had a good idea.

"Anko."

"What happened to her?"

"I don't know; I found her on death's doorstep out in the woods the night of the attack." Naruto felt his chest tighten painfully as gruesome images flashed through his mind.

"You've been with her the whole time?"

"I owe her."

"Then I won't keep you any longer. Thanks for the info." Zabuza said, then made for the door.

When he opened it, he got his second surprise of the day.

"Ah, Momochi-san, you're back." the Third Hokage greeted the much taller man with a tip of his hat.

"Uh, good morning, Hokage-sama." Zabuza replied, straightening his posture almost on instinct.

"There's very little that's 'good' about it, as I'm sure you know by now." Hiruzen said, leaning to the side slightly to shoot Naruto a knowing look.

The hanyō stepped out from behind Zabuza to greet the old man, but stopped in his tracks when he saw the small white box in the Hokage's left hand.

"Goddammit, not another one." Naruto grumbled.

"I think this one is lemon meringue pie." the Hokage allowed himself a small chuckle as he handed the package to its intended recipient.

"No thanks; not a big fan of lemon." Naruto replied, quickly setting the box down on the coffee table and backing away from it.

"I'll take it." Zabuza said quickly.

"You can have it after it's been tested." the masked Genin turned his attention back to the Hokage. "Is there something you need me for?" he asked, somewhat dreading the answer.

"As a matter of fact, there is." Hiruzen nodded, his expression hardening slightly. "Walk with me." he then turned to his right and started down the walkway towards the stairs, not waiting for a response.

Naruto caught up to him in short order, falling in-step just behind and to the right.

"How's the project going?" the Sandaime asked, glancing at Naruto over his shoulder and noting that his hood was up.

"It's moving along nicely. Three more days without incident, and I think it'll be ready."

"I see. That'll make some people very happy."

The rest of the trek continued in comfortable silence, though the experience itself was decidedly uncomfortable for Naruto. He still wasn't used to the looks of respect, gratitude and even admiration he was getting from ninjas and civilians alike. Even though he was walking next to the Hokage himself, they were still looking at him.

He nearly let out a sigh of relief when they finally reached the Tower.

"It's the light, isn't it?" Hiruzen suddenly spoke up as they made their way up to his office.

"Come again?"

"That's why you used to walk around with a cloak, and why you wear that hood now. I knew you didn't do it to hide your identity or anything; everyone in the village knows who you are because you stand out so much. I figured you had your reasons, but I think I get it now. That Darkness affinity of yours comes with a sensitivity to light, doesn't it?"

"…There's always a catch." Naruto shrugged and left it at that.

(10:25am)

When they reached the office, Naruto was struck by a sense of déjà vu as he followed the Hokage in. The last time this had happened, he'd ended up fighting a small scale war with his…estranged mother in the middle of the village.

Fortunately there were no surprises waiting for them this time, and the old man merely took his seat on the other side of his massive desk. He then opened one of the many drawers and began riffling through some papers. While he did this, Naruto found his attention drawn to the portrait of his father that hung on the wall. If he didn't know better, he would swear that it was looking directly at him.

"You're going to have to let go of your hatred for him someday, you know." Hiruzen said, sparing a glance at the object himself, then resuming his search for the documents he needed.

"I'm sure I will someday; I understand the futility in holding a grudge against a dead man. But I also understand the futility in trying to get over it." Naruto answered.

"Have you ever tried?"

"No, because I know I can't."

"Can't, or won't?"

"Both."

"A bit immature, don't you think?"

Naruto rounded on the Hokage. "Is that what you call it? Funny, and all these years I've just been calling it 'life'. Because what am I, if not a product of hatred? I was born into it, and suffered because of it. And then I was shaped and fueled by it. I doubt you can even imagine the number of times where the only thing that kept me going was hatred. The number of times I clung to life just to spite those who wanted me dead. The number of times I refused to give up, solely because I hated them all too much to let them win. So you'll have to excuse me for having no interest in letting go of the thing that has carried me so far."

Hiruzen grimaced, but pushed forward nonetheless. "Be that as it may, it's still disconcerting to see you piling so much of your hatred onto the man who least deserves it."

Naruto let out a bitter chuckle. "Yes, there's a lot of blame to go around, and so many people who deserve what I wish I could do to them. That's the problem; I'm spoiled for choice! But unfortunately I've come to like some of those people, and I focus my hatred elsewhere so I don't have the urge to snap their necks every time I see them." Naruto turned to the Hokage and looked him dead in the eyes. "I hate him so I don't have to hate you. Still think I'm being immature, Hokage-sama?"

"…"

"Well there you go. That's the method in my madness, but what's yours? You brought me in here for a reason, and I get the distinct impression that I'm being tested." Naruto drawled, burying his agitation for the moment.

"You'd be correct. In questioning your maturity, I was fishing for something out of you." Hiruzen admitted. "I wanted an idea of how you might respond to what comes next."

"Which is?"

"A decision." the aged shinobi placed two pieces of paper down side by side on his desk and slid them over towards Naruto. "It's been three days and the people are getting restless. Speculation is running rampant and rumors are spreading like wildfire. On top of that, tensions are rising between civilians and ninjas, and there have been more suicides in the past three days than in the last decade.

The citizens want an explanation, a reason for what happened and someone to blame; they NEED that common enemy. They can't handle the idea that this was just some random act and there's no guilty party. And this time, it's not just the civilians; everyone wants answers, and only you, Kakashi and Kurenai know the true story. Because of your involvement in the events leading up to the attack, as well as the nature of the incident, it is only fair for you to be involved in deciding which story goes into the history books."

Sensing a lose-lose situation in the works, Naruto braced himself for something unpleasant as he scanned through the documents. But he still wasn't quite prepared for what he read.

The first document was surprisingly truthful, detailing what had happened in much the same way Naruto and Kakashi had described it. The Kurama clan's treachery, Unkai's quest for revenge and his later change of heart, Yakumo's tragic fate, Team Eight's involvement, Naruto slaying the demon; it was all there. The only significant omission Naruto noticed was the fact that he had effectively unleashed the demonic illusion by giving it all the energy it needed with his outburst.

But if the first was ninety-nine percent true, then the second was ninety-nine percent bullshit. Gone were all mentions of any demon, Yakumo's story and Unkai not being a piece of shit in the end. Instead, it told the story of Team Eight, who had encountered the Kurama clan during a routine training exercise and managed to slow them down by leading them on a wild goose chase, killing several Kuramas in the process. And Team Seven, who selflessly volunteered to be the first responders, providing backup for Team Eight and ultimately neutralizing the entire clan. Even Anko was touted as a hero in her own right, saving the life of another ninja unfortunate enough to cross the Kurama clan's path, then alerting the Hokage and Team Seven of the danger. She then accompanied Team Seven and jumped right into the fray alongside them without a second's hesitation, despite being worn out after getting back from an A-Class mission earlier in the day.

Naruto found it irritating that the one part of the story that was entirely true would the one part that many people wouldn't believe.

The attack on Konoha was explained as the Kurama clan being a bunch of sore losers. Instead of going out with honor and dignity, the last remaining traitors, including Unkai and Jinki, had pooled their power together to perform the ultimate Genjutsu. Of course, this was something they had been cooking up for years, wanting to cripple Konoha as a show of good faith to their new home. A new home that was currently unknown, since the Kuramas who had survived Team Seven's onslaught killed themselves to avoid interrogation.

For a moment, Naruto found it hard to believe that anyone would buy such a propaganda-laden crock, but the more he thought about it, the less it surprised him.

'People will believe anything, especially if they WANT to believe it.' he thought. 'And who doesn't want to believe a tale of conquering heroes, and villains getting what they deserve?'

At first, the choice seemed obvious. As soon as there was any mention of a demon, the people's minds would be made up. Even though he had killed it, just as he had told Kakashi, they would either say he was in league with the demon and killed it to cover his own tracks, or that he wouldn't tolerate another demon moving in on his turf. Naruto would be back to being public enemy number one as soon as the report was released, and they would all quickly forget that, without him, Konoha would have taken much, much more damage and suffered far more casualties.

But then Naruto remembered that Kurama clan was still around in Konoha; it was only the shinobi portion that had gone rogue. The civilians knew nothing about it and were totally blameless, but the "exaggerated" report didn't make that distinction. If that one was released, the Hokage and the Council would likely be forced to put the remaining Kuramas on trial just to keep up appearances. And even if they didn't, the public would already have their own verdict rendered. Life would be hell for the civilian Kuramas, if they were even allowed to live at all. Naruto could easily imagine all twenty-four of them "disappearing" overnight and not a single fuck being given.

Could he do that to them? Condemn them to the fate of scapegoats like Yakumo and himself?

"Wow, heavy." Nightmare remarked dryly.

'I take it you have an opinion?'

"I think you should throw them under the bus and be done with it."

'The hell is a "bus"?'

"…Throw them under the train, then." Nightmare sighed.

'…'

"What? Were you expecting some sappy 'listen to your heart' speech? Fuck that noise. They might be in a fucked up position now, but that ain't your problem, so don't make it your problem. You look out for you and yours; let the rest fend for themselves. Besides, they're screwed either way, so what sense does it make for you to further complicate your own life just to give them a tiny little reprieve that won't matter in the end?"

"He's right, you know." Kyuubi interjected. "As terrible as their situation is going to be, you don't owe them anything at all. The best you can do is ask that the report says the remaining Kuramas are innocent, and let the chips fall where they may."

Hiruzen sighed when, after over a minute of apparent deliberation, Naruto slid one of the documents back over to him.

"Sorry if I disappointed you," Naruto said somewhat curtly after hearing the sigh, "but I have no reason to stick my neck out for them."

"Disappointed? Hardly. I knew which one you would choose before I even showed them to you. But the fact that you actually took the time to think about it and weigh the options is more than I expected, honestly." Hiruzen replied.

"I know what's going to happen to them; I've been where they're about to be. Throwing a bunch of innocent people to the wolves isn't exactly an easy choice, even if it's the only choice."

"Indeed…Just imagine how much worse it would be to have to do it to your own son…"

"Don't." Naruto snarled. "He didn't 'have' to do anything; he CHOSE to put his faith in the people and in you, without any sort of backup plan in place. Where was my 'Official Report'? Where was-No, no, I'm not doing this." he finished, taking a few deep breaths of calm himself. He knew better than to let that train of thought get rolling.

"Very well, a conversation for another day."

"How about a conversation for never?"

"No, it's going to happen. It needs to happen." Hiruzen's tone left no room for argument.

"…Since you brought me here to make the choice, can I request that the report make it clear that the Kurama civilians had nothing to do with what happened?" Naruto asked after a moment of silence.

"The final report will, but I doubt it will make a difference."

"Which is exactly why I want it in there."

"What, to prove that the citizens of Konoha are irrational, angry and hateful people? No need; the ugly side of human nature isn't exactly a secret, even to those who have never really experienced it firsthand. But these are extenuating circumstances."

"Of course they are." Naruto scoffed with an unseen eye-roll.

"I didn't hear you scoffing when you got off scot-free after terrorizing half the village in your pranking spree. There was even a cover story that didn't make a single mention of you. And I don't recall you being so sarcastic when you escaped the consequences of fighting, and nearly killing Kushina in the middle of the village. An international incident on that level would have gotten literally ANYONE else executed, with their head delivered as a peace offering, but you didn't even get a slap on the wrist for it. Oh, and let's not forget HUNDREDS of cases of assault, theft, destruction of property and murder, among other offenses over the years, all excused or swept under a rug because of extenuating circumstances." the Hokage finished, giving the boy a deadpan stare that wouldn't have been out of place on Kakashi or Naruto himself.

And just like that, the wind was gone from Naruto's sails.

"Alright, alright, I get it." he said, looking away from his commander and chief.

"I hope so." Hiruzen remarked, then reached into his left sleeve to retrieve his pipe. A tiny flame sparked to life on the tip of his right thumb, which he used to light the old, hand-carved smoking apparatus. As he puffed away, he looked over the document that would become the Official Report once again. It seemed to get more ridiculous every time he looked at it. "You know, it's sad that the only part of this 'report' that's actually true is the only part anyone will question. Publically, anyhow."

Naruto bit his tongue, seeing as how the old man apparently wasn't in the mood to tolerate him badmouthing the citizens of Konoha.

"Mm. Hokage-sama, since the report mentions nothing about Yakumo, what happens there?" Naruto asked, making a conscious effort to keep his hands from clenching as the girl's final moments flashed through his mind.

Hiruzen raised an eyebrow at the sudden change of subject. "Sadly, not much will change about her situation. She will be as unknown in death as she was in life. Even the safe house she lived in will be completely destroyed, and its existence stricken from any records. It's unfortunate, but trust me when I tell you that hers is far from the first tragic story that will never be told, and it won't be the last. Such is the nature of a cover-up."

"But can't you make something up? If you're going to tear her clan down with half-truths and whole lies, why can't we build her up with more of the same?"

"I could…but I think the task should fall to you."

"Me?!"

The Hokage nodded. "She let you into her mind; you know more about her than anyone, dead or alive, and so you are uniquely suited to craft a story to honor her memory."

Naruto wanted to protest, but he understood the logic. Not to mention he was the one who brought it up, so why shouldn't he be the one to do it? But the young hanyou did get the feeling he was being tested again.

"Very well. You said the safe house was to be destroyed. Has anything been taken out of it?" Naruto asked.

"Only the body of the second ANBU guard. Why?"

"I'd like to make a request…"

(Meanwhile)

Asuma Sarutobi was a man on a mission. When he had returned with his Genin team two days ago to find part of the village in ruins, he had accepted Kurenai's excuse of fatigue and left her alone. Afterall, he had his own problems to deal with. But now he knew something was up and that they needed to talk, even if his "kinda-sorta-sometimes-girlfriend" didn't want to. Especially if she didn't want to.

Over the last two days, Asuma had learned that no one had really seen Kurenai since the final battle on the night of the attack. She hadn't gone to the hospital to visit anyone, despite one of her own students being in a coma, and no one he talked to recalled seeing her helping out with the recovery efforts. No one had seen hide nor hair of the woman in three days. Perhaps more distressing was the fact that most of those who noticed her absence weren't concerned about it or surprised by it. Hell, even Hinata, of all people, made remarks about Kurenai's callousness, and she wasn't exactly polite about it.

That was what really set off the alarm bells in Asuma's head. There was a story behind the girl's new attitude towards her sensei, and he was sure that story would also explain Kurenai's behavior.

So when he arrived at her doorstep, he vowed he wasn't going to leave until he got answers.

"Kurenai, are you in there?" Asuma called as he knocked on the door, making sure not to sound too insistent.

If there was one thing he had learned while "dating" the woman, it was that to have a relationship with her was to walk a very fine line. Even when you thought you knew what she would and wouldn't tolerate, it always paid to play it safe.

"Kurenai, I know you're home." the large man said after nearly a minute passed without a reply from within. "I can feel your chakra."

After a few seconds he felt Kurenai's signature getting closer as she moved towards the door, finally stopping right in front of it.

"…Go away, Asuma. Please, just go away."

"I can't do that." the bearded Jōnin replied, not liking what he heard in her voice, muffled though it was. Or rather, what he DIDN'T hear.

"Yes, you can. This isn't your problem."

"When you disappear for three days, don't help with the recovery efforts and don't even visit your own student laid up in the hospital, it becomes my problem." Asuma said firmly. "You are neglecting your duties as a ninja of Konoha, and I'm not leaving until you at least tell me why."

"…"

"Do I have to pull rank on you?" though they were both Jōnin, Asuma's seniority, as well as his time as one of the Twelve Guardian Ninjas, meant that he functionally outranked just about every other ninja in his class.

"…I think I've done enough already." Asuma barely caught the low mumble from the other side of the door.

"Kurenai…" his patience was wearing thin and he was not in the mood for melodrama. While their personal relationship may have been conducted on her terms, she answered to him professionally, and this was now a professional matter.

Though the door didn't open, a soft "click" was heard as it was unlocked. Asuma felt a bit of tension leave him when he heard the sound. One of his greatest anxieties about his and Kurenai's dynamic was that one day she would lose respect for him. Afterall, he deferred to her at nearly every turn, letting her dictate what they did, when they did it and how. Even their love life…especially their love life, was controlled by Kurenai. When she wanted it, she would either show up at his place, or she'd drag him off to hers. But she always initiated, though he had learned several subtle and clever ways to get her in the mood to do so.

Asuma let her boss him around and was constantly walking on eggshells to avoid getting her riled up. This was the only way to get close to her without being shut down and pushed away, but in the back of his mind he always worried that his approach would backfire. That Kurenai would see his behavior as a sign of weakness and start thinking that he was somehow beneath her. If he lost her respect, it would be nearly three years of hard work down the drain.

'At least I still have that.' Asuma thought as he opened the door and let himself in.

He was greeted to the sight of Kurenai, in a plain white shirt and grey sweatpants, with her back to him as she walked towards the kitchen, where something was in the microwave. Possibly macaroni and cheese, since his nose was picking up nothing but cheddar. That was a bad sign, as Kurenai normally wouldn't be caught dead eating that kind of junk food. Another bad sign was her hair. It was wet and hanging limply around her head, indicating a recent shower, but she hadn't used her usual pomegranate-scented conditioner or done anything to it, and it was starting to frizz.

And then there was her gait, which was almost more of a shuffle as she appeared to force herself to take each step. Her body language spoke of exhaustion, and Asuma suspected that he would see bags under her eyes when she finally faced him.

Looking around the condo, he noted that, while not messy, it wasn't at all up to the standards Kurenai normally held herself to. Those standards were why Asuma's presence there was a rarity, as he was essentially forbidden from touching anything without permission. Him just standing there with his hands in his pockets made for an awkward atmosphere that would ruin any kind of "mood", so they usually went back to his home.

But now her place looked more like his. Movies lying around, dishes in the sink, a drink sitting on the coffee table without a coaster, and even a few balled up papers and tissues that had likely been thrown at the wastebasket with a careless flick of the wrist and missed.

Asuma had half a mind to detain her on suspicion of being an imposter, but for the time being he would simply keep his distance.

"Kurenai, what's going on?"

The dark-haired woman paused with her hand on the door of her refrigerator. "…Some twisted form of karma, I think."

There it was. The flat, dull, almost lifeless tone that Asuma had hoped was just the result of the door muffling her voice.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I always thought karma meant that you get back what you put in." Kurenai continued, sounding more like she was talking to herself than to her guest. "You do bad things, and bad things happen to you…But they seem to be happening to everyone except me. That's twisted, right? So many people dead and dying, because of what I did...Yet here I am, with barely a scratch on me."

Even at a distance Asuma could clearly see her entire body quivering.

"You're not making much se-"

"Why are you with me?" Kurenai interrupted.

"What?"

"Why are you with me?" she repeated, still not turning to face him. "I didn't get it before, and I definitely don't get it now. Our 'dates' leave a lot to be desired, you certainly aren't sticking around because of the sex," Asuma chose to believe she was referring to the frequency, not the quality, "and I don't see you as the submissive type who likes to be pushed around. So why?"

"Well…" Asuma debated the merits of confessing. Kurenai was obviously in a fragile state of mind, and his reasons could easily be misconstrued as him wanting to play hero to her "damsel in distress".

Luckily Kurenai wasn't finished, giving him more time to think.

"I know you heard stories before you ever approached me, and I know you heard even more once people started seeing us together in public. And I know that you know they're mostly true. I'm shallow, selfish, heartless and mean. I've alienated so many people and burned so many bridges…even ones that weren't mine to burn. So why? Why did you attach yourself to me, knowing I would eventually toss you aside like all the others?"

"…Because I know what it's like." Asuma said with a heavy sigh. "I know what it's like to have been a horrible person, using and abusing everyone around you for your own purposes. I know what it's like to have no idea how to make things right when no one wants anything to do with you anymore. I know what it's like for your fellow ninjas to not trust you, even despise you, and be totally justified. I had friends who tried to help me a long time ago, and I drove them all away. To this day, my own father still keeps me at arm's length. I don't blame any of them for leaving me to my own devices, or vices as the case was back then, but I still wish that just one of them had been stubborn enough to stay by my side. To see to it that I got what I needed, regardless of what I wanted."

Kurenai replied with a scoff. "Tch, I've heard that you were a bit of an asshole once you made Jōnin, and got worse when you were chosen to be one of the Twelve. But you've got nothing on me."

"If you think I was only a 'bit' of an asshole, you really haven't heard anything." Asuma countered.

"Oh? Then what's the full story?"

"How's about you tell me yours first?"

"Is that an order?"

"Does it have to be?"

The next few seconds passed in complete silence. Even the quiet drone of the microwave seemed to fade out as the tension grew. When the machine finally beeped as the timer hit zero, it might as well have been a blast from an air horn. The two Jōnin nearly jumped out of their skins, and Kurenai scrambled to open the microwave to keep it from beeping again.

With that done, Kurenai leaned on the counter, though it looked more like she had fallen and barely caught herself. Asuma stopped himself from coming to her aid right at the threshold of her kitchen. He still wasn't entirely sure she was the real deal just yet.

"I don't even know why I care." Kurenai's voice was little more than a whisper. "I can't hide from it, it's going to come out eventually…He'll probably tell everyone just to spite me…"

"Who will?" Asuma asked, though he had a feeling he knew who she was talking about.

"Asuma…" Kurenai finally turned to him, revealing bloodshot eyes and distinct dark patches beneath them, just as he'd suspected. "Do you know why I took on a Genin team?"

"To further your own career." the smoker replied after a few moments' hesitation. If he told the truth, hopefully he'd get the truth in return.

Kurenai nodded, not showing any surprise that her boyfriend knew her so well.

"I didn't care about them, not really. I just knew that the Hokage tended to show more favor to those who devoted themselves to teaching the next generation. It didn't matter who I got; I would whip them into shape all the same, and everything they accomplished after that would reflect on me. You can imagine how excited I was when I got the heirs to three of the most prestigious clans in the village. So not only would I be in good with the Hokage, but I'd have the support of the Hyūga, the Aburame and the Inuzuka if I pulled it off. But there was another reason I wanted a team of my own. I…I needed to wash away the taste of my last failure."

"What do you mean?" Asuma pressed. Now he was getting somewhere, as this was the first time Kurenai had ever talked about failing at anything. Even things that he knew she had failed at, like her first attempt at the Jōnin Exam.

"I had another student two years before them, right after I was promoted. You know I became an orphan the night the Kyuubi attacked, but what you don't…what you might not know is that I was taken in by the Kurama Clan for a time. My father was trained by them, and so was I. I owed them so much, and when they asked me to take their next so-called 'prodigy' as my Apprentice, I couldn't turn them down. I should've. I should've walked away and let them figure something else out. But I didn't. I accepted and they brought me a girl named 'Yakumo'…" and from there Kurenai bared all. She revealed every little detail of what she had done, and what had come of it. Nothing was left out, no matter how it made her look.

By the end of her tale, she had been reduced to a sobbing mess, shedding tears she thought had dried up after three straight days of crying.

For his part, Asuma was astounded, and more than a little appalled. He'd known Kurenai had earned her moniker of "Ice Queen" with the things she had done in the past, but this took the cake. And the worst part was he couldn't reassure her, not without lying to her face.

"You…Kurenai, you can't take ALL of the blame for what happened. That harebrained scheme was destined to fail anyway; it had already failed by the time they called for you!" the best Asuma could do was convince her that it was an inevitability, with or without her involvement.

"Don't do that." Kurenai all but hissed. "Don't try to twist the facts to make me look better. I BROKE her, do you understand? Even after losing her best friend and her parents, she kept fighting. It wasn't until I crushed her dreams, crushed her spirit, that, that…THING took over! It was me! They may have put the demon inside her, but I'M the one who served her up to it ON A SILVER FUCKING PLATTER!" she raged. "She chose DEATH over me, Asuma! I begged her...I begged her to give me a chance to make it right. I…I just wanted to do the right thing…I wanted to make up for what I did…But she chose to die rather than believe me!" her body rocked with the force of her sobs.

Asuma had no reply for that, so he settled for capturing his girlfriend in a tight embrace.

"What's wrong with me, Asuma?" her muffled voice questioned. "I don't want to be a bad person, but…but I can't stop myself. I try to do what I think is best, but all I do is hurt people! Why am I so toxic? Why am I so fucked up?! Why?! WHY?!" she suddenly began screaming and thrashing around in his arms, pounding on his chest with her fists, hard enough for him to actually feel the blows through his vest.

Asuma didn't say a word, taking beating without so much as a grunt. This was what she needed. She needed to break down, so he could help her rebuild herself.

Then, as quickly as it began, the tantrum stopped and Kurenai released a shuddering breath.

"…I'm breaking up with you." she murmured.

"…" Asuma said nothing.

"…Let me go."

"…"

"…You need to leave."

"…"

"I…I'm going to hurt you. Just like everyone else, I'm going to hurt you."

"…"

"I'm going to make you hate me…You're either going to die, or you're going to hate me."

"…"

"My father is dead…The Kuramas are dead…Yakumo is dead…Akamaru is dead…Everyone else hates me."

Asuma blinked. "Akamaru? But I just saw Hina-" Asuma started, but was interrupted by an ungodly shriek from Kurenai as she resumed her thrashing.

"NO!" she wailed, staring up at the much taller ninja with wide, panic-stricken eyes. "Nononononononono…" she shook her head in denial as more tears flowed down her cheeks. "I wasn't supposed to tell…He told me not to tell…You can't tell anyone about Akamaru! Please! You can't!" she begged, clutching Asuma's vest in a death grip.

"What are you talking about, Kurenai? Kurenai?" Asuma tried to get her to elaborate, but she wasn't hearing him.

She just clung to him, whispering "strike three" over and over as her entire body shook like a leaf in the wind. His eyes widened when he felt an unmistakable warmth begin to travel down his left pant leg…

Knowing that he wasn't getting anything more out of her, Asuma tapped a pressure point in the side of her neck and she went limp. She needed rest, otherwise she was going to go out of her mind, if she hadn't already

He picked her up, uncaring of the still-expanding wet patches in her sweatpants, and carried her to her bathroom. His expression darkened as a single thought crossed his mind.

'What the hell did you do, Naruto?'

XXXX

Told ya', lots of the talky-talk. Hope I didn't bore anyone to death, but if you've gotten this far you know this isn't the kind of story where you can turn off your brain and enjoy the pretty explosions. And once again I'll warn you that the next chapter will be more of the same, though there will be a minor fight scene, and I might be able to work in another, since splitting the chapter has given me a bit more space to work with.

Now a lot of people have asked me how I do my characters. How I bring them to life and make them fit so well within the universe. What you've seen in this chapter is the key. I treat my characters as real people, and in real life EVERYONE has a story. From the burger-flipper to the CEO, everybody has a path laid out behind them that led them to where they are now. And that's what I do with my characters. From the civilian merchant with a single line of dialogue, to the ANBU Captain who just stands hidden in a corner and never says a word; they ALL have stories. Most of them won't get told, but when the time calls for it, their tale will come to light and just like that they are weaved seamlessly into the narrative, like they've been there all along. And that's because they HAVE been there all along.

These characters didn't just pop out of the ether for the sake of a plot device; they all have their own lives that they have lived while having nothing at all to do with the main plot. And it's what they did in those lives that lead them into the main plot.

Take Genma for example. I didn't craft him to fill a role in the story; his role in the story is a direct result of what he's done and experienced before the story even started. His personality and training methods make him a perfect teacher for someone like Sasuke, but if not for Genma owing Kakashi a favor from long before the story started, he never would've been "contracted" and thus never would've been a main supporting character. He's not a puppet whose strings I'm pulling; every action and decision he makes, he makes for reasons that are entirely his own.

This is a living, breathing world that doesn't revolve around what Naruto and Co. are doing, no matter how big a deal it is. Shizaru really personifies this idea. You don't see him very often because he's got shit to do that Naruto doesn't factor into. Machinations that have been in the works for decades, or even centuries.

Now of course in the end all decisions are my own, but I don't approach it in that manner. If that sounds like a pain in the ass, especially with so many characters, that's because it sure as fuck is. If I didn't do it that way, best believe I'd be further along by now and I'd update far more often. But I firmly believe that would be sacrificing quality for quantity, and that's not my style.

So there you go, a gander into my writing process for those who give a damn. It's not for everyone, but then again not much of what I do is.

(1): Question: When it comes to things like times times, room numbers and stuff like that within dialogue and narration, do you guys prefer I write the numbers out, or are you okay with just the numbers themselves? I use the numbers mostly for convenience when I'm writing and I mean to replace them with words for the final product, but more often than not I completely overlook them in the end. I haven't gotten any complaints about it, yet, but I know that kind of thing bugs some people. Having a bunch of numbers in the middle of a sentence can mess up the flow and break immersion. I'll still keep the numbers for timeskips and scene changes, but if you guys don't like it within the dialogue or narration I can change it.

(2): This is something about the Shadow Realm that I meant to explain much earlier, but there was never really an opportunity for it. The only person who's ever gone to the Shadow Realm with Naruto is Kurohane, for whom that mechanic doesn't apply. I didn't want to handle it like this, via exposition from another character; I wanted Naruto to figure it out on his own. But again, the opportunity to do it in a way that made sense never came up, so I had to do it like this to get the info out there. In fact, there are quite a few things about the Shadow Realm that I haven't touched on in the story yet. Expect that to change, since we're getting to the point where Naruto is facing challenges that require him to better understand his abilities and how best to use them. The days when he could solve most of his problems by hitting them harder are numbered.

So yeah, without a Darkness affinity, organic matter doesn't actually go to the Shadow Realm, but is merely duplicated by it while the original stays in stasis, for lack of a better term. I implemented this mechanic just for situations like Naruto is facing. I didn't want it to become the Senzu Bean of the story, where Naruto could take someone critically wounded, patch them up and bring them back good as new with no drawbacks.

(3): This is a very specific reference to a very specific person whose work I'm a huge fan of. Can you guess who it is? Shouldn't be too hard.

I think that's about it. If you've got questions or suggestions feel free to drop them to me via review or PM(or over on my forum…Devilkeys' Playground…It's awesome). Please note that ALL reviews from "Guests" asking questions WILL BE DELETED. I CANNOT ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS IF YOU DO NOT HAVE AN ACCOUNT. I'm really getting tired of saying this, but some people still don't get it.

Until next time, folks. I hope you all had a good time over the holidays, I hope you had a better 2016 than I did, and here's to a bitchin' 2017!

Jason Out!